The National Guard is helping out at food banks across Washington.
The National Guard is helping out at food banks across Washington. KAREN DUCEY / GETTY IMAGES

A new report from Northwest Harvest shows that 2.2 million Washingtonians might face food insecurity at the peak of the unemployment crisis that's hitting the state as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

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In the worst-case scenario, where "at-risk" jobs don't come back and Congress doesn't extend current unemployment and food benefits, researchers project a funding gap of $115 million per month necessary to "fully address" the need for food. That gap might be greatest "as early as August or as late as December," meaning that anywhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of us might be standing in line at understocked food banks as soon as this summer. Washingtonians with "very low food security," the United States Department of Agriculture's term for people not getting enough to eat every day, could rise from 4% to 13% at the hight of the crisis.

The report confirms what the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) expected last month when it saw the number of people who can't afford food double from a baseline of 850,000 to 1.6 million.

During a press conference Thursday afternoon, Northwest Harvest CEO Thomas Reynolds said the report assumes that food insecurity rates track with the unemployment rate. According to the latest numbers from the Employment Security Department, over 1.1 million "distinct individuals" in Washington have filed for unemployment benefits since the outbreak began, with low-income earners making up the bulk of filers.

However, WSDA director Derek Sandison stressed that his department has "cobbled together resources" from federal, state, and private donors to "address the need" under the current circumstances.

Reynolds underlined that point. "We're holding our own right now, we're just concerned what will happen later in the year if some of these programs are sunset without additional programs in place."

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Among other policies, Northwest Harvest public policy director Christina Wong recommended making permanent the current expansions of unemployment benefits and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Wong also said SNAP benefits needed to be updated and increased by 15%, and that the Trump Administration should "suspend harmful rules proposed last year" that add work requirements to food stamp recipients. While philanthropic efforts are part of the puzzle of filling funding gaps, Wong said SNAP benefits provide nine meals for each one meal provided by charity, so increasing the federal response would be much more effective than dumping a bunch of money into private foundations.

Toward that end, Congresswoman Kim Schrier said the Democrats in the House extended and increased SNAP funding in the Heroes Act, which is currently "under discussion," though Sen. Mitch McConnell isn't promising anything.

Schrier also mentioned a smaller relief bill called the Farmers Feeding Families Coronavirus Response Act, which she co-sponsored with Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris-Rodgers. That bill would give food banks more money to buy surplus crops from farmers. Sen. Debbie Stabenow introduced the companion bill, the Food Supply Protection Act of 2020, in the Senate, which might have a better chance of moving forward.

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