Food insecurity and the pandemic: Who’s going hungry and has it gotten worse?

Food insecurity is a problem for more than 1 in 10 Americans. But what does that actually mean?

On a recent bright Wednesday afternoon, cars crept down 900 West in Salt Lake City, turning past the International Peace Garden, then two more turns on a circuitous journey that ended in the parking lot of a local church where the Utah Food Bank was handing out groceries.

More than 125 cars were in line before the weekly distribution started, people patiently waiting in their cars or — like Jolene Smith, 64, and her aunt Jane Smith, 75 — sitting under trees a few feet from where their car saved a  spot in line.

“I would not eat very well without this, that’s for sure,” Jolene Smith said.

Gary Dalton, 75, loaded his supplies into a baby stroller to trundle them home from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stake center parking lot.

Jesusita Barcelon, 27, waited with her grandmother, happy for extra food for her three kids, all in grade school. Her husband’s hours were cut back in the pandemic, said Barcelon, who sometimes volunteers to help distribute food. “The pandemic has made everything harder for everyone and we are all getting through it in our own way. The kids are going through it, too.”

Families with children have been among those hardest hit by food insecurity, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Here, people wait in line to get food at the Utah Food Bank mobile pantry at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Cannon Stake Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021.
People wait in line to get food at the Utah Food Bank mobile pantry at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Cannon Stake Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Food insecurity was a national concern even before the pandemic squeezed millions of families in myriad ways, from shrinking wages and lost jobs to less access to school meal programs. But though millions worry about whether they’ll have enough to eat, a new report suggests the robust federal response to the pandemic kept America’s food insecurity pretty stable.

However, three groups found their food situation more precarious: households with children, Black Americans and those living in the South, according to the 2020 report on household food security just released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Using the Current Population Survey to compare 2020 data to 2019, the report said 89.5% of U.S. households never lacked access to enough food for an “active, healthy life” for household members.

The other 10.5% — close to 13.8 million households — were “food insecure,” having limited access to adequate food at times because they don’t have enough money and other resources. Overall, that’s similar to before the pandemic.

Almost 4% with “very low food security” could sometimes be classified as hungry. “The food intake of some household members was reduced, and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because of limited resources,” the report said.

Both food insecurity and very low food security grew in households with children. The report said 7.6% —  about 3 million families — couldn’t always provide enough food for the kids, up from 6.5% in 2019. Around 322,000 families with children were actually hungry or skipped meals at least sometimes, slightly higher than in 2019. Food insecurity was especially high in households where an adult couldn’t work because of the pandemic (16.4%) or was jobless (20.4%).

Long-term health

Experts say the fact overall food insecurity didn’t get worse during the pandemic shouldn’t obscure that for some, hunger or worry about food resources are real problems.

Food insecurity can come and go, but the impact may linger.

“It’s not just concerning because it’s short-term hardship,” said Elaine Waxman, senior fellow specializing in food insecurity, nutrition and health disparities at the Urban Institute. “We know a lot about what food insecurity does to people at all points in the life course. It has significant health implications.”

She said children with inadequate nutrition are more apt to have developmental delays, while adolescents have an increased chance of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Food-insecure adults are more likely to have chronic diseases like diabetes. And food insecurity physically ages older adults.

“At 70, your health status looks more like somebody who’s 14 years older than you are,” Waxman said. “We talk about food insecurity like it’s a social welfare problem. But it’s really a public health problem. We’ve already been living with that and anything that has made it worse even in the short run is something you may be living with for a while. That’s really worrying.”

Gary Dalton uses a baby stroller to transport his food items home at the Utah Food Bank mobile pantry at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Cannon Stake Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Seeing need up close

Nonprofit food organizations across the country reported an uptick in people seeking help.

Feeding America, a national organization of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, said its food banks have provided 44% more meals than usual during the pandemic. Others also reported seeing increased need.

“There were some extraordinary efforts to get food out during the pandemic,” said Glenn Bailey, director of Salt Lake-based Crossroads Urban Center. “As that changes, it will be interesting to see what happens at our more traditional pantries. The biggest problem is how much people have to spend on rent in the current market. If a wave of evictions occurs at some point, that will really hurt.”

He said while the government’s decision to temporarily pay the child tax credit monthly has helped many families, “people living on disability without kids or seniors on a fixed income don’t get child tax credits. Undocumented people don’t either.”

But federal programs reach millions in different circumstances. In November 2020, 55% of food-insecure households were enrolled in at least one of the big federal nutrition programs:  the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program and the National School Lunch Program.

Of those the Deseret News interviewed at a pair of Utah Food Bank distributions, just one mother with three children said she gets food assistance from SNAP. Most said they have worked things out with help from food banks because they don’t want government support. Others said they wouldn’t qualify, but need help.

A surprising number of people loading fresh fruit, canned goods and other items say they share the food with neighbors whose wallets are also stretched thin, among them Jerry Dolejs, 68. He ran Salt Lake’s double-decker downtown tour business until the pandemic cleared the streets of tourists. He lives on a small plot of land that has two houses — his and Melinda Urena’s. Her brother was laid off and her household includes six kids right now including nieces and nephews. So he shares what he gets.

“Many people struggle right now,” says Dolejs.

Jerry Dolejs, center, gives food to his neighbors after visiting the Utah Food Bank mobile pantry at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Cannon Stake Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Dolejs keeps a few items for himself and gives the majority of the food to his neighbor, who has a large family. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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Hard to measure

While finding hunger troubling, not everyone thinks food insecurity reliably measures economic well-being or pain. 

“It’s hard to really tease out how much of food insecurity reflects hardship vs. anxiety,” said Angela Rachidi, an American Enterprise Institute scholar specializing in poverty issues. “There’s certainly nothing that produces more anxiety than the pandemic — anxiety around health, around where you were going to get groceries, all sorts of anxieties that could be unique to the pandemic.”

But she calls the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program “a success story. I think it gets a lot of criticism, even from me in the sense of how it might discourage work and some other things. But if you just look at the program itself over time and its effectiveness in addressing food insecurity, it really has had positive outcomes.”

Add in other food-providing efforts and “we do a pretty good job in this country’s very low food insecurity,” she said.

Housing is a more concrete measure of how people fare, said economist Bruce D. Meyer, a professor at the University of Chicago. One can see details on the housing people occupy. Food isn’t that trackable.

Meyer, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a research associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research, said America has a bigger problem with obesity than it does with malnutrition. The food challenge now is not just quantity, but quality. And poor food choices can be seen across income levels.

Rachidi worries about food quality and obesity, too — and not just for low-income people. “All the money sent to families during the pandemic only made things worse. To put things into context: Roughly one-third of children are overweight or obese and one study in California found those rates increased to 46% during the pandemic, meaning almost half of children age 5-11 are obese or overweight,” she said by email.

She added that “7.6% of children are food insecure, but less than 1% have very low food security that translates into reduced food intake. If you think about the problems facing children right now, too much food and not the right kinds of food is a much bigger problem than food insecurity.”

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Ongoing food efforts

Help given in the pandemic offers “definitive evidence that food hardship is responsive to government aid,” H. Luke Shaefer, a University of Michigan researcher who studies stimulus checks, told the New York Times. “The effect is crystal clear.” 

While the new food security report tracked earlier federal efforts, the work on hunger and food insecurity hasn’t stopped. Nor has tracking the results.

Urban Institute reported that food insecurity fell by a third between spring 2020 and 2021, but is highest among Hispanic adults. Overall at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity among adults 18 to 64 was 21.7%, falling to 15.3% in spring 2021. Rates were higher for families living with minor children, 23.8% at the start of the pandemic and dropping to 17.7% in April 2021.

The institute said that in April 2021, 11.7% of white adults had food insecurity, compared to 19.6% of Blacks, 25.7% of Hispanics and 12.3% of others. The 2020 report found Black households were already in a more precarious position compared to white households, but the food-insecurity gap was 3% wider at the end of 2020 than in 2019. More than 1 in 5 Black households worried about food, compared to 1 in 14 white households.

“Black households suffered disproportionately from job losses and school closings during the pandemic and had fewer assets with which to buffer a crisis,” The New York Times reported. Experts told Deseret News that Hispanics faced many of the same challenges, including working — and sometimes losing — low-paying jobs.

Among measures during the pandemic that help stabilize food security:

  • A temporary 15% SNAP benefit increase.
  • Better access to school meal programs.
  • The pandemic electronic benefit transfer, giving benefit card access to replace school meals.
  • Enhanced unemployment and stimulus checks.

Columbia University is among those saying programs and policies have direct impact on struggling families. It says the direct child tax credit payments have recently improved food security and helped lift children out of poverty. The credit, though, only helps households with minor children.

Brookings Institution said a program last summer that gave families electronic benefits cards reduced child hunger when kids didn’t have access to school-based food programs.

In July, Urban Institute reported that 43 million Americans participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “But even the maximum benefit in 2020 fell short of low-income meal costs in 96% of U.S. counties.” The 15% temporary benefit boost meant benefits only fell short in 41% of counties.

Counties with the biggest gap between benefits and actual meal costs included New York and San Francisco, as well as smaller rural counties with resort towns, like Blaine County, Idaho, the institute report said.

Though the boosted food benefit will expire soon, the SNAP program will change its calculation about the same time. The Thrifty Meal Plan, on which benefits are based, will raise benefits about 40 cents a person per meal. Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at Brookings Institution, said the “Thrifty’s” real purchasing power hadn’t changed in more than 45 years.

In a report for Brookings Institution, she said past changes had to be cost-neutral, so in 2006, food nutrition standards were lowered. Congress in 2018’s Farm Bill ordered the recalculation, to be updated every five years.

“Modernizing and reconciling the four Congressionally-mandated inputs into the Thrifty plan — dietary guidance, food composition, consumption patterns, and food prices — and removing cost-neutrality have produced a more reasonable value that will better support food security, nutrition, health and healthy development,” Bauer said

The new Thrifty itself notes, “This change comes at a time when the nation is experiencing the consequences of the established connection between food insecurity — more specifically, nutrition insecurity — and poor health.”

Loaves of bread at the Utah Food Bank mobile pantry at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Cannon Stake Center in Salt Lake City are pictured on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News