The blog of the Urban Institute
April 24, 2020

How Public Housing Authorities Can Help Bridge the Food Access Gap Exacerbated by the Pandemic

Public housing authorities (PHAs) provide families with stable affordable housing, which is one of the key steps in ensuring families can afford food. But as economic conditions deteriorate for those with the fewest resources, public housing residents—already more vulnerable to the health and economic effects of COVID-19—are losing jobs, access to transportation, and the charitable food programs that provided food for children and for older adults.

PHAs often offer space for food banks or coordinate with agencies like Meals on Wheels to bring food to their residents, but the COVID-19 crisis is forcing many to step up and fill the gap for their residents. As many PHAs rise to the occasion, other groups can learn from the work some PHAs are doing with limited resources.

PHAs are moving beyond housing to connect residents to food

To bridge the widening gap in food access for their residents, some PHAs are drawing on existing partnerships and leveraging creative strategies for securing and delivering food to residents. We talked with PHA leaders across the country and heard about how staff and directors are partnering with local organizations distributing emergency food, providing food deliveries, and raising or repurposing funds to secure enough food for their families to survive this pandemic.

Closures of food programs and limited transportation make it difficult for residents to access food. Our past work has identified that access to transportation, either a personal vehicle or public transit, is key to accessing food. To get available food directly to residents, housing authorities like the Chicago Housing Authority and the Housing Authority of Cook County (HACC) are ramping up food delivery to residents, especially seniors.

Some housing stakeholders fear that small housing authorities may not have the capacity to provide the services their residents need. But BangorHousing, a small housing authority in Bangor, Maine, that has roughly 800 units, has shown how a small but dedicated PHA can rise to the moment. BangorHousing may lack resources of larger PHAs or even the regulatory flexibility that PHAs with Moving to Work status have, but the agency is demonstrating that it can be nimble in drawing on community partnerships or connecting with local resources to secure resources in times of crisis.

PHAs are leveraging local partnerships

Before COIVD-19, BangorHousing’s Families Forward program, a collaboration between the PHA and the Boys and Girls Club of Bangor, established a robust network of service providers that partner to deliver wraparound services to families living in public housing. Now, BangorHousing is drawing on those connections to the families they serve and local partners to address immediate food needs. Staff members from the housing authority and the Boys and Girls Club are stocking pantry bags and delivering them to residents’ homes. 

In the first half of April, the Boys and Girls Club served 735 meals and pantry bags to over 60 families, and the PHA delivered 293 bags to seniors, or 50 to 70 bags a week. But they are quickly running out of food, as is the local food pantry. The PHA is securing food from the local food bank and, to meet the growing need, has also been buying in bulk from local retailers. Staff said that four to five new families reach out daily in need of food. To support the continued need, BangorHousing and the Boys and Girls Club are applying for additional funds and determining flexibility in grants to buy food wholesale from a local food retailer. 

For other housing authorities, there may be more of a need to follow the lead and coordination of the city, state, or social service agencies. In Chicago, the city and state social services agencies, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and Chicago Public Schools are leading food distribution efforts, but the Chicago Housing Authority has maintained a reduced number of resident services staff on-site to coordinate food services. HACC created a list of where food distributions are taking place—school meal pickup sites and pantries that remain open—and partnered with local county agencies and bureaus to disseminate the list to over 100,000 Cook County residents. HACC also set up an inquiry email account to field questions about food scarcity available to all Cook County residents, regardless of participation in HACC programming. 

The Fort Wayne Housing Authority in Fort Wayne, Indiana, continues to work with Meals on Wheels and the local food bank to get meals to seniors who are facing the greatest risk. To secure food for school-age children, PHAs are coordinating with school districts. The Fort Wayne Housing Authority is also working with local school districts to ensure there are no transportation barriers to accessing food.

In Portland, Oregon, Home Forward staff are pairing maps from Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and information from local schools to help families identify available food resources. Partnerships like BangorHousing and the Boys and Girls Club of Bangor can reach families with school-age children that relied on after-school meal programs. The Boys and Girls Club is continuing to provide bagged meals for supper to all youth in the community ages 18 and younger. 

Some PHAs have leveraged local resources to support food distribution. The Seattle Housing Authority is plugging into a community-wide public-private partnership around food distribution. But other localities may not have the wealth of resources available in a city of Seattle’s size.

How additional funding and support can help PHAs better serve residents

To continue these efforts, PHAs need financial support and flexibility in funding to pursue all avenues to help their residents access food. Many philanthropies are reallocating funds to COVID-19 response, and there are federal funds allocated for emergency food, but these funds do not directly support PHAs’ food relief efforts, like purchasing food directly from stores or coordinating food deliveries. 

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocated $685 million to PHAs through the Public Housing Operating Fund to maintain operations and take necessary action to maintain housing stock. But the CARES Act does not include funds for PHA participation in food relief efforts, nor has the US Department of Housing and Urban Development granted waivers to PHAs for reallocating funds to fill critical food access gaps if food banks and other partners cannot quickly meet the need or reach residents. Future federal funding should include explicit provisions allocated to PHAs to purchase and deliver food, expand outreach, and coordinate with larger local efforts to combat increasingly dire food gaps.

With increased capacity, housing authorities can expand service provision and coordinate outreach to people in need. Across the country, there are calls for PHAs to increase wellness checks for residents, which could include information on how to access food resources.

PHAs have existing touch points with families that should be maintained throughout the crisis. Because food insecurity can be the result of rapidly changing social or economic conditions, families may find themselves in need of food support after losing a job or facing a health care emergency. PHAs should lean into existing partnerships with service providers, school districts, local agencies, and the private sector to finance and coordinate food supports. By connecting to larger systems, PHAs can ensure residents have access to consistent support during the crisis and throughout the recovery period.

As the pandemic’s effects continue to grow, PHAs need to be able to feed their residents. In the short term, PHAs need flexibility to use their funds to provide their residents with essential services and food relief and plug into service delivery networks. But the challenges of inequitable food access and economic supports will continue after the pandemic subsides. In the long term, PHAs need elevated resources and dedicated support that allow them to link to larger systems and ensure their residents get consistent access to the resources and opportunities they need during recovery.

Centro Hispano Daniel Torres kitchen workers preparing bag lunches Friday morning April 17, 2020 to be distributed at Olivet Boys and Girls Club locations to help feed children in Reading, PA during the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

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