The Development of Food Insecurity during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Food insecurity has been a prevalent issue in the United States for quite some time, and the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on the country’s economy has heightened this issue even more. In order to more closely examine this problem, we will be discussing how food insecurity has developed since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as how this development has differed between urban and rural populations. It was found that the pandemic has certainly increased food insecurity for the majority of vulnerable populations in the country, further affecting a disproportionate number of individuals; a reflection of the great inequities the country continues to face.
We are taking an advisory role in our research, with the goal of informing local representatives, community leaders, and the general public about the state of food insecurity in the United States as of 2020. Along with this, we will be offering potential solutions to the growing problem by analyzing what has caused food insecurity to grow in the US and how social inequities have exacerbated its effects. Potential solutions will be drawn from observations of how different places in the country responded to waves of food insecurity before and during the pandemic.
Description of Methods
Throughout the research process, we have primarily searched for peer-reviewed academic papers on the related research questions. This was extracted from online databases and relevant web-sources. Statistics and figures were also drawn from the cited papers in the research project, among other sources such as official government and non-profit organizations.
The observed increase in food insecurity since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic has been influenced by a number of different socioeconomic factors, including race, age, poverty, and more. In order to better analyze what caused the rise in food insecurity and who has been most affected by it, we will be comparing how food insecurity has developed in urban and rural populations. Food insecurity and hunger can look very different in urban areas versus rural areas, and in order to work on effectively solving this issue that COVID-19 has heightened, we must consider how the experiences of individuals living in different kinds of places are likely very different from each other, and therefore require different solutions more tailored to their specific needs.
In our research, we will ask the following questions:
- How has food insecurity in the United States been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
- How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected food insecurity in urban vs. rural populations in the United States?
- What can be done to decrease hunger in both urban and rural populations in the United States following a global pandemic?
It is important to acknowledge that while the term “food insecurity” can often have an implied meaning or be used interchangeably with terms such as “hunger”, there are various definitions offered by the USDA; one such definition is “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”, and this is the definition used in the USDA’s food security survey and results. It is also important to note the distinction between the USDA’s definitions of food security and hunger, with hunger being defined as “an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity” (USDA). Other terms like “very low food security” are defined as “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake” (USDA).
Overall, 12.6% of households in the United States in 2016 experienced food insecurity--which approximates to 15.6 million people (David, 2017). This trend has been declining as food insecurity levels have reached 11.1% in 2018. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 10.5% of households (13.7 million people) were left food insecure in 2019--a substantial change to previous food insecurity levels three years earlier.
Rural locations in particular have been struggling to deal with the issue of food insecurity. Older individuals are primarily left in small rural towns, stuck with poor infrastructure and higher poverty rates (Burton et al., 2013; Piontak & Schulman, 2014; David, 2017). Indeed, it is generally agreed that food insecurity is fundamentally an issue about poverty (Whitley, 2013; Piontak & Schulman, 2014) where the poor have scarce resources to acquire sufficient and necessary foods for a well-balanced diet. States that are composed largely of rural sectors typically have seen greater levels of food insecurity in the past. This has been especially true for states located in the South East/West, North East, and Midwest.
Additionally, deepening levels of inequality has only exacerbated the extent of the food insecurity issue (Burton et al., 2013; Whitley, 2013; Piontak & Schulman, 2014; Fitzpatrick et al., 2020). Given the considerable migration of ethnic minorities to rural towns, accompanied with general low-wage labor, greater divides between White and non-White minorities has exposed substantial inequalities faced by disadvantaged families (Burton et al., 2013). The levels of inequality in rural areas has grown to the point where racial and ethnic segregation matches or exceeds large-city neighborhood patterns (Burton et al., 2013). Accompanied with growing “food deserts” limiting available options for healthy eating in many of these segregated locations, there has been a substantial number of disadvantaged communities in rural America suffering food insecurity (Burton et al., 2013; Piontak & Schulman, 2014).
In prior research on food insecurity in the United States, there tends to be a greater focus on rural areas because food insecurity is perceived as being greater in rural settings than it is in urban ones. While it is true that in urban settings such as large cities in the US that there is usually a greater access to food in terms of abundance and variety compared to rural places, there is also very unequal access to food that results in food insecurity being just as prevalent of an issue. In the USDA’s report on the prevalence of food insecurity in the United States in 2018 and 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, show the rate of food insecurity inside of metropolitan areas to be 10.1% in 2018 and 10.6% in 2019, as you can see in the figure below.
The percentage of people who were food insecure in rural areas was slightly higher, but over 10% of the population in urban areas were food insecure even before the effects of the pandemic, which is a large enough portion of the population to constitute a serious problem that needs to be addressed. In this graph, you can also see that white, non-Hispanic households were less likely to experience food insecurity than Black or Hispanic households. An essay published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) about how food insecurity has been increasing in relation to urbanization stated that “Urban areas are most afflicted by profound inequalities stemming from differences between socioeconomic groups, ethnicity, migratory status, location of residence (slums or formal settlements), city size, and a host of other factors.” (Ruel, 2020). These inequalities resulted in minority populations in US cities being some of the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. More densely populated areas saw an increased rate of spread of the virus compared to areas with a more spread out population, with just 10 major cities, including “New York, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; New Orleans, Louisiana; Detroit, Michigan; Los Angeles, California; Atlanta, Georgia; Miami, Florida; Chicago, Illinois; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Seattle, Washington… accounting for 63.5% of confirmed COVID-19 infections (834126 of 1312679) in the United States as of May 10, 2020” (Adhikari, 2020). Since coronavirus cases were so high in these cities compared to other areas, the social and economic effects of the pandemic were also quite substantial.
During the Pandemic
Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a massive toll on food insecurity levels across the country. Given the close relationship household food insecurity shares with poverty, the increase in unemployment during the pandemic can explain more than half of the rise in food insecurity levels as the rate of food insecurity for households with children during the pandemic has risen to 29.5% ( Schanzenbach & Pitts, 2020).
Previous large migrations of non-White individuals to Southern regions in the rural United States (Burton et al., 2013) saw far larger rates of food insecurity. States like Mississippi and Louisiana alone saw food insecurity rates rise up to 31.6% and 30.1% respectively (Schanzenbach & Pitts, 2020). For many Black families who are prone to experience disproportionate levels of food insecurity due to a lower socioeconomic status, racial discrimination, and residential segregation (Morales et al., 2020), it is not difficult to foresee that this group faces a higher risk where 36% reported experiencing food insecurity whereas 18% of Whites reported the same thing from April 23 to May 29, 2020 (Schanzenbach & Pitts, 2020). For Hispanic populations, the burdens of the pandemic were compounded with potential “fears of deportation, family separation, and police harassment [which] intensified during the pandemic,” (Morales et al., 2020, p. 11) causing hesitancy for necessary shopping of certain food goods.
In an article published by staff at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, they assessed these 10 major US cities and the disproportionate burden of the pandemic on minority populations observed within them. In order to do this they used data from the 2018 US Census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates Program to analyze observed poverty rates in these cities before the pandemic. They also used the 2018 US Census Annual Estimates of the Resident Population in order to collect data on the “county proportions of racial/ethnic minority groups”. Lastly, they used data on the rates of coronavirus infections and deaths in these areas released by the CDC and used statistical analysis to reveal relationships between the effects of COVID-19 on minority populations in 10 of the major cities most affected by the pandemic. From their analysis, they found that “among both more-poverty and less-poverty counties, those with substantially non-White or more diverse populations had higher expected cumulative COVID-19 incident infections compared with counties with substantially White or less-diverse population”. This shows that even when controlling for differences in income, that minority populations in these 10 cities were more severely affected by COVID-19. This combined with the disparity in food insecurity that has existed for decades in the United States for minority populations left these communities in American cities very vulnerable to hunger, and reveals how deeply the effects of systematic racism runs in our country, including in our food system.
One major city in the US that was particularly impacted by COVID-19 was Chicago, Illinois. The Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network of food pantries recorded a “150 percent increase in people needing food assistance during the pandemic”, facing the highest demand for food assistance they ever have. In the graph below, you can see the comparisons between the number of calls to their food depository hotline in 2019 compared to 2020, showing a major jump in the number of calls when the pandemic started, as well as many more calls overall (Pena).
The record high demand for food assistance in the city resulted in a response of “48% more pounds of food” being distributed compared to 2019, which included “475,000 emergency boxes” and “350,000 summer meals for children.” (Pena). Similar responses were observed in other major US cities, with the economic effects of the pandemic expected to last years. The COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact in urban areas in America due to the high population density in cities resulting in an accelerated spread of the virus, which led to an increase in poverty and food insecurity that affected minority populations in these areas at a disproportionate level .
The following solutions can be implemented to mitigate the levels of food insecurity during the pandemic. Mostly drawn as inspiration from successful trials in the pre-pandemic time period, their implementation in the present would make positive change to the food insecurity issue.
- A “Foodsource Hotline” where inquirers can receive food access/distribution information anonymously.
- Expansion of food stamps that can be applied to local farmers markets both physically and electronically.
- Government support of food banks and local farmers markets. (David, 2017)
- Incorporation of culturally cognizant food items in dispersed aid. (Wu et al., 2020)
This overall study has been limited to the extent of the research reports and scholarly literature that compose a large part of our findings. Because the pandemic has been an ongoing occurrence as we have worked to compose everything, the number of reports and peer-reviewed articles are indeed limited. As more time passes by, there may be new information or discoveries that we have missed entirely or failed to address thoroughly. As for the generalizability of our findings, many of the statistics that we convey are representative of the United States population as a whole. This allows us to analyze how the pandemic has affected the entire country’s food insecurity, and we were able to make our findings more specific by focusing on rural and urban populations separately. Despite this, every person’s experience with food insecurity was different depending on the specific place that they live, so our results may not be applicable to every individual’s experience, but rather reveal overall trends.
Adhikari, S., Pantaleo, N. P., Feldman, J. M., Ogedegbe, O., Thorpe, L., & Troxel, A. B. (2020). Assessment of Community-Level Disparities in Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Infections and Deaths in Large US Metropolitan Areas. JAMA Network Open, 3(7), 1162–1169. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.16938
Burton, L. M., Lichter, D. T., Baker, R. S., & Eason, J. M. (2013). Inequality, family processes, and health in the “new” rural America. American Behavioral Scientist , 57 (8), 1128-1151.
David, E. (2017). Food insecurity in America.
Fitzpatrick, K. M., Harris, C., Drawve, G., & Willis, D. E. (2021). Assessing food insecurity among US adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition , 16 (1), 1-18.
Greater Chicago Food Depository. (2020, December 21). Hunger in Our Community: 2020 Status Report. Greater Chicago Food Depository. https://www.chicagosfoodbank.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Food-Depository-Hunger-Report-Dec-2020.pdf.
Morales, D. X., Morales, S. A., & Beltran, T. F. (2020). Racial/ethnic disparities in household food insecurity during the covid-19 pandemic: a nationally representative study. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities , 1-15.
Peña, M. (2021, March 30). Chicago Is Experiencing The Biggest Hunger Crisis In Decades Because Of Coronavirus - And The Recovery Could Take Years. Block Club Chicago. https://blockclubchicago.org/2020/12/23/chicago-is-experiencing-the-biggest-hunger-crisis-in-decades-because-of-coronavirus-and-the-recovery-could-take-years/.
Piontak, J. R., & Schulman, M. D. (2014). Food insecurity in rural America. Contexts , 13 (3), 75-77.
Ruel, M. (2020, October 14). Growing Cities, Growing Food Insecurity: How to Protect the Poor during Rapid Urbanization. Growing Cities, Growing Food Insecurity: How to Protect the Poor during Rapid Urbanization | Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://www.csis.org/analysis/growing-cities-growing-food-insecurity-how-protect-poor-during-rapid-urbanization.
Schanzenbach, D., & Pitts, A. (2020). How much has food insecurity risen? Evidence from the Census Household Pulse Survey. Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Rapid Research Report. Northwestern Institute for Policy Research. Published June , 10 .
Whitley, S. (2013). Changing times in rural America: Food assistance and food insecurity in food deserts. Journal of Family Social Work, 16(1), 36-52.
Wu, T. Y., Ford, O., Rainville, A. J., & Bessire, R. (2020). COVID-19 Care Package Distribution for Senior Citizens and Families in Detroit and Hamtramck, Michigan. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition , 15 (4), 585-587.
About the Authors
As an Economics major, ways to improve overall social well-being includes addressing the problem of undernutrition and food insecurity in the United States. Considering that hunger can have serious health repercussions, especially for children, it remains all the more imperative that a better understanding of the problem is recognized and solutions can be drawn. As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages large swaths of the population and further exacerbates food insecurity among households, confronting this issue maintains a pressing status which my partner and I seek to succinctly express.
The problem of food insecurity in the United States has always been of particular interest to me, and since the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem, it is of even greater concern. Our population is growing very rapidly and the state of our environment is continuing to worsen. As a Community and Environmental Sociology major, I think figuring out how to feed our increasing population while climate change continues to pose more and more challenges for food production is one of the most pressing and important issues our society faces, and that more research should be focused towards the issue.