Food insecurity doubles due to coronavirus, may exceed Great Recession

One-fifth of Americans say they have had trouble getting enough food to eat during the economic turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic, a nearly overnight doubling of food insecurity in the United States, according to a national poll released on Thursday. The 22 percent nationwide insecurity rate reported in the Covid Impact Survey is far higher than the 14.9 percent rate reported by the government during the worst of the Great Recession.

One-third of households with children said they had experienced food insecurity — three times the national rate — responding that during the past 30 days, it was “often true” or “sometimes true” that “the food we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have money to get more.” Food insecurity was highest in Louisiana, at 34 percent, and lowest in Minnesota, at 12 percent.

American households “face severe economic and social hardships as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the survey, which was funded by the Data Foundation and reported little improvement in economic, health, or well-being measures since late April, when polling began. The latest results were drawn from polling done from May 4-10.

There are “ongoing challenges for American households in achieving food security,” according to a summary of the May results. In both rounds of polling, 22 percent of respondents reported that “the food we bought just didn’t last.”

Congress has put billions of dollars into public nutrition programs, including SNAP, school food, and WIC, in response to the coronavirus, and has appropriated an additional $1 billion to buy and donate food to food banks and to help them cover their administrative costs. Senate Republicans have blocked a House Democratic proposal for a temporary 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits. Backers say the increase would help poor Americans buy food and act as an economic stimulus.

“The extent of economic distress experienced by families requires an urgent and sustained response from the federal government,” concluded professor Diane Schanzenbach and research analyst Abigail Pitts of Northwestern University in an analysis of food insecurity based on the first round of Covid Impact Survey data. They said food insecurity was “substantially larger than what would have been predicted, especially among families with children.”

The USDA pegged the U.S. food insecurity rate at 11.1 percent in its most recent report. The rate peaked at 14.9 percent in 2011 during the long recovery from the 2008-09 recession.

In her paper, Schanzenbach cited a slightly lower rate, 10.1 percent, based on month-to-month data from the National Health Interview Survey, which shows that food insecurity is lowest during March, April, and May, when people receive tax refunds. The surge in food insecurity reported by the Covid Impact Survey was larger than expected as a result of such factors as the dramatic increase in the U.S. jobless rate. “Some of the larger-than-predicted spike for those with children is likely explained by the loss of school meals,” said Schanzenbach and Pitts.

Six percent of respondents to the Covid Impact Survey said they had received help from a food pantry in the preceding seven days.

For a summary of the Covid Impact Survey and a link to the results, click here.