According to the USDA, food insecurity refers to a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. This can include missing meals, reducing portion sizes, and eating less varied diets. Food insecurity is often experienced by households experiencing poverty, unemployment, or other barriers to resources. Before COVID-19 hit, many Americans struggled to put meals on their tables. The pandemic has only exacerbated this issue.
Food insecurity was a significant concern for many Americans. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in nine Americans lacked consistent access to enough nutritious food. According to the Food Research and Action Center, in 2018, 14% of all households faced food insecurity and 20.4% of families with children faced food insecurity. Food insecurity is higher in some areas – including rural communities and cities (Leddy et al. 1162-1169). It also affects certain racial groups at higher rates: Black households experience food insecurity at 21.2%, compared with 10.7% for white households and about 18% for Asian and Hispanic families.
Food insecurity has remained an issue in America for years, even before COVID-19 hit and arguably became more of a problem. A significant factor in food insecurity is poverty. The median income for these households was $23,463 per year (or $1,955 per month), compared with $81,455 for all households. Homes that had incomes below the Federal poverty line ($26,200 a year for a family of four) were five times more likely to be food insecure than those above it; those with incomes less than half were 17 times more likely to be food insecure. The other significant factor is the cost of living (Fitzpatrick et al. 1-18). Housing costs are the most significant expense for most people; the higher your rent or mortgage payments are, the less money you have leftover for other things like food. People who live in cities or expensive suburbs are especially at risk of food insecurity because housing is so costly.
In addition, food insecurity has also been linked with Food Deserts and Geographic Locations. Food Deserts are urban and rural areas that lack access to healthy foods (Leddy et al. 1162-1169). These are usually located in underserved areas with a high rate of poverty and low-income families. At the same time, geographic location involves people living in rural areas facing more significant challenges because there are limited options for buying fresh produce or other healthful foods instead of processed foods.
Food insecurity was higher for Black and Hispanic households than white households before COVID-19 and increased more than white households after COVID-19 began (Leddy et al. 1162-1169). In an average month in 2018, approximately 10% of white households were food insecure, whereas 14% of Black families and 19% of Hispanic households were food insecure.
While food insecurity has been a significant issue across the United States in recent years, the effects of COVID-19 have increased the number of people who struggle to afford food. There are many reasons why COVID-19 has made food insecurity worse. The most important is that job loss and income decline due to the pandemic have made it difficult for families to afford nutritious food. Due to school closures, families have also had to spend more money on food than before the pandemic (Fitzpatrick et al. 1-18). In addition, as people began to panic about buying at grocery stores, there was less food available for purchase by those who needed it most.
As a result of these trends, many people are hungry or malnourished because they cannot afford enough nutritious food. Hunger and malnutrition can cause serious health problems, including chronic diseases and even premature death.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation even more difficult for many families. However, some programs help individuals with food insecurity: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helps people with limited money buy food. SNAP benefits can purchase food in most supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and some grocery stores. The benefits are not cash, so they cannot buy non-food items like alcohol, cigarettes, or medicine.
Moreover, The Elderly Nutrition Program gives seniors at least 60 years of age access to nutrition services, congregate meals, home-delivered meals, and group activities at senior centers (Fitzpatrick et al. 1-18). Seniors can also use Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program vouchers to buy groceries in markets and roadside stands, as well as through community-supported agriculture programs in some states.
Apart from food donations, increasing public awareness would aid in fighting food insecurity. It may seem surprising, but many people do not know how widespread hunger is in our country, and even more so, do not know how much food goes to waste each year. Estimates for destroyed food range from about 30% – 40% (a large portion ends up in landfills), which equates to about $161 billion a year! People can reduce this waste by simply planning their meals better, using leftovers for another dinner, or composting organic waste instead of throwing it.
Fitzpatrick, Kevin M., et al. “Assessing food insecurity among US adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition 16.1 (2021): 1-18.
Leddy, Anna M., et al. “A conceptual model for understanding the rapid COVID-19–related increase in food insecurity and its impact on health and healthcare.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 112.5 (2020): 1162-1169.