By Daniela Silva
In the wake of the global pandemic, a wide array of inequities in the United States have been brought to light. Class privilege has allowed more affluent individuals to easily make the decision to stay at home while others have no choice but to keep risking their lives in order to pay the bills. Unequal access to and treatment within the healthcare system has left black and brown communities more vulnerable to falling ill with COVID-19. One disparity that is often overlooked yet is causing a huge rift between how well a family fairs during this global pandemic is that of the Digital Divide. This term refers to the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and communications technology and those that don't or have restricted access.
Access not only includes physically owning the technology, such as a phone or computer, but also living in an area with adequate connectivity, having the money to pay for internet access or possessing the technological knowledge needed to navigate the web and other programs. What COVID-19 has made very clear is that access to the internet is an essential part of modern life. Communities who face barriers to gaining access are greatly impacted, especially during this time. During the pandemic, the digital divide has created barriers to two critical aspects of daily life: accessing information to food resources and the continuation of a child’s education.
Many of the federal resources being made available to economically vulnerable populations in order to reduce the burden of food insecurity require access to the internet. For example, the USDA launched a pilot program to enable those who have SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits to order groceries online with their benefits. This program allows for lower income populations to get groceries delivered to their homes rather than needing to physically enter a grocery store. Texas recently joined the pilot, and the two retailers in the state involved with this program are Amazon and Walmart. This program has the potential to impact all 3.2 million SNAP users in the state.
More than ever, families are relying on SNAP to keep food on the table. A second program, the Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) Program, requires those who are not already receiving SNAP benefits to apply for the P-EBT Program online and creates yet another barrier to accessing supplemental resources to those families who have limited access to high speed internet.
It is well recorded that food security and scholastic ability are linked. The Digital Divide is worsening food insecurity and thus a child’s ability to learn and perform well in school. Children in vulnerable populations of Austin, particularly those in eastern portions of the city, are hit twice as hard during the pandemic, are most at risk to fall behind in school and struggle with food insecurity. Not only do many of the children in these communities have limited access to high-speed internet, but their parents are more likely to be struggling to act as both bread winners and teachers as compared to their more affluent neighbors.
Community members facing systemic economic hardships are more likely to live in areas with few healthy food options. These same individuals also have less flexibility to stay home to prepare fresh meals since they are likely employed in areas deemed “essential” and cannot afford to take time off or work fewer hours. As a result, the issue of lacking food access is heightened due to an oversaturation of fast food restaurants and convenience stores in lower income areas. When a family is time-poor and resource-poor, turning to processed foods that are high in sugar and fat, with little-to-no nutritional value, ends up being normalized within an entire community and culture.
Working to reduce the Digital Divide to help these communities get more information about and access to food support, particularly programs like SNAP, would help reduce the barrier to choosing healthy, fresh food instead of fast food. Providing kids with healthy, nutritious, fresh food can also boost their chances at narrowing the learning gap between them and their more affluent fellow students once school starts back in session.
As part of the City of Austin’s Fresh for Less program, Farmshare Austin responded to COVID-19 by pivoting our Mobile Markets to a Mobile Market Curbside Delivery service. What was once a program that packed mini-farmers’ markets into vans and drove out to communities facing geographic and economic barriers to accessing fresh and affordable food is now a home-delivery service. As a program designed for lower-income families, we are the only farm-to-home delivery service in the city that accepts SNAP, Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) and cash and charges no delivery fee. The transition has marked a notable decline in SNAP customers compared to the physical Mobile Markets, and the main suspect of this decline is the Digital Divide. Currently, the only way to place an order through this service is by going to the Farmshare Austin website - something that has proved difficult for customers who either have little access to the internet, do not own a computer, or lack the technological literacy needed to complete the process. Farmshare Austin is working hand-in-hand with the Sustainable Food Center (SFC) to create a Fresh For Less hotline, staffed with SFC bilingual promotoras who are equipped to answer food access questions, inquiries about SNAP and DUFB, and to assist Mobile Market Curbside customers with online ordering. Another way that SFC is pivoting their traditional outreach activities is by posting food access information on billboards. And, the City of Austin is launching outreach efforts to spread the word on Pandemic-EBT and other resources.
Farmshare is committed to finding new ways to bridge the Digital Divide to ensure greater food access for every member of our community. From creating a phone line that customers without access to the internet can call into, to dispersing materials that can be shared on non-smartphones, Farmshare joins in with nonprofits around Austin to implement the creative changes necessary to address some of the barriers our community members face to accessing fresh, healthy, and affordable food.
For more information about Farmshare’s Mobile Market Curbside Delivery or to support our work, please visit www.farmshareaustin.org