Mercy Chefs founder: It's 2021 and America is hungry. Here's what I've seen and what we need next

This year, we’ve served more than 7 million meals to Americans struggling to put food on the table

America is hungry. Hungry like seldom before.

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And the road ahead of us is a long one, one that will take years to navigate even after we get control of the coronavirus pandemic.

Typically, our organization, Mercy Chefs, serves professionally prepared meals to victims of natural disasters in addition to feeding the needy through the community kitchens we’ve established in our Virginia home and around the country.

This year, we’ve served more than 7 million meals to Americans struggling to put food on the table because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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It’s as if a massive hurricane hit all 50 states at the same time, leaving years of destruction in its wake. And it’s affected everyone, particularly the most vulnerable: the young, the old, the infirmed, the single mother, the child without a family unit.

According to Feeding America, more than 54 million Americans – including 18 million children – could become food insecure, up from 37 million in a year ago.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 1 in 8 Americans in late October and early November said they sometimes or often didn’t have enough food to eat in the past week – it was 1 in 6 adults in homes with children.

From Hawaii and Oklahoma to Puerto Rico and Florida, we’ve been sent pictures of empty refrigerators and heard the same stories: We woke up this morning and didn’t know if we were going to eat today.

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People open the USDA Farmers to Families Food Boxes that we supplement with proteins, dairy and whatever else is needed and start to weep, grateful that for at least for a day, they’ll enjoy a meal. And they will leave feeling that someone cares.

We have made great strides through the help of the government, but there have been mistakes. While money was poured into the pipeline quickly and many farms were saved, the people who often make the most difference, the people who deal with the last transaction and know how to get the food to the people most in need often were left out of the process.

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And the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, launched by the Trump administration in March and expected to provide food to Americans through December, ran low on money, resulting in nonprofits and foodbanks being unable to meet the needs in their communities as the holidays approached.

In 2021, the Biden administration will have the opportunity to take a good program and make it exceptional. It needs to be exceptional. We need to demand nothing less.

Whereas the government’s first attempt at addressing the food crisis had restrictions that made distribution exclusive rather than inclusive, the new administration can learn from past mistakes to help even more.

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The second CARES Act passed by Congress after Christmas isn’t nearly enough, especially since it would eliminate all the groups that participated in the Farmers to Families program in 2020. Money that was distributed widely in the first CARES Act is designated much more narrowly for foodbanks, most of which are near city centers,  and other nutrition nonprofits that focus on larger populations.

New money needs to be allocated, and the food crisis needs to be fought as a separate program.

Time is of the essence.

While the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines is promising, Americans are still contracting coronavirus and dying in record numbers.

Americans are still losing jobs. And it’s expected that the economy will take years to recover from the pandemic.

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Grocery prices, which have settled a bit since the pandemic’s early months, are up about five percent from 2019 levels, making it even harder for millions of American families to provide nourishing meals to their families.

Americans have taken food insecurity for granted for a long time.

Millions of Americans need help right now. Millions more will need help soon. We’ve learned in 2020 that this not a cultural, economic or social issue. If we ignore it and don’t act now, it will hinder us even more.

This is not a red or blue issue, it’s an American issue. Let’s all do our part to tackle it in together in 2021.

Gary LeBlanc is the founder of Virginia-based Mercy Chefs.