Too many Americans are going hungry during the pandemic. Congress needs to act on a relief bill | Aryanna Hunter

Neashia Johnson scoops spaghetti into a takeout container. (Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk of The Pittsburgh Current)

In November 1996, Bill Clinton was running for his second term, and I was turning 14.

Aryanna Hunter (Capital-Star file photo)

Climbing in the backseat of my mom’s white 1987 Nissan Sentra I shook the rain off of my winter coat.

We were heading to the food bank to pick up a box of food for the holidays. We didn’t have to wait in a line, we were in and out pretty quickly, and my hands were digging to the bottom of that box for the small bag of candy that sometimes would be there. 

We lived below the poverty line and my mom relied heavily upon the services of our local food bank and local church pantries.

As a teen, I overheard my mom worry about how she would make sure we had food to eat, keep the lights and water on, and even gas in her car These worries and anxieties she felt would make me worry too. Whether she knew it or not

Today, with the economic crisis our country is in, more and more families are turning to the food bank to help them keep food on the table for their families. Lines have stretched blocks, politicians and volunteers have loaded box after box into struggling Americans vehicles. 

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Earlier this year, Feeding America estimated that as many as 54 million people nationwide could experience food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in many people becoming unemployed.  That trumps the 35.2 million who faced food insecurity last year. 

According to recent U.S. Labor Department statistics, 2.4 million people have reported being out of work for two weeks or more and nearly 5 million are approaching long-term joblessness after seven months in this pandemic. 

Now, as the Election Day looms, teenagers are again hopping in the backseats of their parents’ cars to wait in line for a box of food to help feed their family for the week. They are listening to the worries of their parents about how they will make ends meet, how mom will pull off Thanksgiving dinner this year, or even keep a roof over their heads. 

When that teenager breaks open the box and pokes around to see what can be found they will find a letter on White House letterhead from President Donald Trump, with his signature attached, that reads: 

“We will support Americans’ recovery every step of the way. Together we will overcome this challenge, and our Nation will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever before.” 

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We have a president who stated he would stop all stimulus talks until after the election. Who has cut funding to food programs to include food stamps or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) yet just weeks before an important election is putting propaganda letters in 100 million food boxes that will be distributed to food banks through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. 

Some food banks like San Francisco are removing this letter so those who utilize their services don’t feel like the food bank is pushing a political agenda.

Food banks in Oregon have opted out of receiving these boxes from the Farmers to Families Food Box Program because of the letters, and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank hired an attorney to evaluate if keeping this letter would risk their non-profit status.

While the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank is keeping this letter in the boxes they receive, there are many food banks across the country who are not. 

This shameless self-promotion to those who are the neediest weeks before an election is unprecedented. I’d love to see our local food banks and pantries remove these highly political letters in hopes that this kind of campaigning doesn’t become a regular thing moving forward in politics. 

This administration should be spending money addressing how to get Americans back to work in a safe way, provide income support to families who are struggling right now, and think about how that teenager feels watching their family struggle to keep it all together. 

The long-term impacts of this pandemic have yet to be seen and the least we can do is reduce the anxiety American families are feeling as the holidays approach.

Opinion contributor Aryanna Hunter, of Pittsburgh, is an Iraq War veteran, author, advocate, and founder of What a Veteran Looks Like and #MeTooMST. Her work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.