Written by Trista Barrantes, Education & Curriculum Intern
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the rate of food insecurity in the United States has risen.
To understand what food insecurity is, we must first know what food security looks like. Food security is the state of having reliable access to sufficient qualities of affordable, nutritious food. For many, the ‘reliable’ and ‘affordable’ aspect of food security has been affected by the COVID-19 health crisis. In February 2020, the unemployment rate was 3.5%, rising to 4.4% in March and then skyrocketing to 14.8% by April 2020 (Falk, et. al). Today, unemployment rates have fallen back down to 5.4% as of July 2021—yet, this number is still higher than pre-pandemic times and is still said to be understating the true number of unemployed people in the nation (Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects).
Struggling to make end’s meet usually impacts a household’s ability to regularly afford enough nutritious food for themselves and their families, thus leading to the experience of food insecurity. This trend has been recognized today: when comparing reported numbers in 2019 to recent data, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (abbreviated as CBPP) analyzed a 5.4% increase of food insecurity among adults in the US. In 2019, 3.4% of adults reported that they either sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat. That figure jumped to 8.8% in March 2021, a little over one year after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the United States.
Statistics also indicate that some demographics were much more susceptible to food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic than other groups.
In late June 2021, 14% of adults in households with children reported they did not get enough to eat within the last 7 days—twice as likely compared to 7% of adults in households without children. Typically, adults in households with children limit food for the adults first before limiting the amount of food that the child/children eats. Even so, as it stands between 9% to 14% of households with children reported that their children either sometimes or often didn’t eat enough food within the last week. This number translates to nearly 9 million children in the US that weren’t eating enough because their household could not afford it (Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects) (Keith-Jennings, et. al).
Demographics that are even more likely to experience food insecurity are communities of color: particularly, Black and Latino households. At 17% and 16% of Black and Latino adults, they are more than twice as likely to experience food insecurity than white adults (who stand at 7% likely to lack sufficient food within the last 7 days during the COVID-19 pandemic). This difference ties into existing disparities due to structural racism in education, employment, and housing, which also translates into children of Black and Latino households being over three times as likely as to experience food insecurity (25% and 23%) than white children (7%) (Keith-Jennings, et. al).
Looking at these statistics, it’s not surprising that food banks across the US serve up to 55% more people today than before COVID times, with as many as 4 in 10 people utilizing this type of charitable service for the first time when the pandemic began (Morello). In the face of new health protocols, food organizations had to creatively ramp up their operations to meet the needs of food-insecure populations. When volunteers became unable to work due to shelter-in-place orders, some food banks relied on United States Army National Guard or hires from temp agencies to sort and package food; and, for those who could not pick up their produce, delivery services were coordinated to bring it to them at their homes (Kadvany). A study in Vermont found that food banks and food pantries helped households facing food insecurity sustain adequate fruit and vegetable intake when they couldn’t afford to otherwise (Bertmann, et. al).
Barriers for people who cannot access food distribution centers vary. Inconvenient hours, long wait lines, and centers/pantries running out of food are other common issues that were all but amplified when COVID-19 hit. Those relying on public transportation were more likely to face barriers in the face of social distancing protocols, which have changed the process of some food distributors to a drive-thru styled layout where volunteers place pre-assembled produce boxes inside of a patron’s vehicle (instead of a walk-through, supermarket-type setting) (Bertmann, et. al). Despite the challenges faced during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, charitable food organizations all over the nation work to feed people every single day.
In San Mateo County, Each Green Corner works with local non-profit food distribution partners to provide nutritious foods to those experiencing food insecurity. We also address important concerns revolving around the likeability and diversity of foods available at food banks by growing and donating culturally-diverse produce such as tomatillos, bok choy, chinese cabbage, korean radishes—the list is always growing. Not only does this provide familiarity and comfort to households of color experiencing food insecurity, but it also extends the budget of the food distributors we partner with so they can purchase even more food for those in need.
Falk, G., Romero, P., Nicchitta, I., Nyhof, E. (2021, August 20). Unemployment Rates During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Congressional Research Service, CRS Report R46554, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/R46554.pdf
Bertmann, F., Rogomentich, K., Belarmino, E., & Niles, M. (2021, August 6.) The Food Bank and Food Pantries Help Food Insecure Participants Maintain Fruit and Vegetable Intake During COVID 19. Frontiers in Nutrition, https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2021.673158
Kadvany, Elena. (2020, June 19). How 12 million pounds of food get distributed during a pandemic. Palo Alto Weekly / Palo Alto Online, https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2020/06/19/how-12-million-pounds-of-food-get-distributed-during-a-pandemic
Keith-Jennings, B., Nchako, C., & Llobrera, J. (2021, April 27). Number of families struggling to afford food rose steeply in pandemic and remains high, especially among children and households of color. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/number-of-families-struggling-to-afford-food-rose-steeply-in-pandemic-and.
Morello, P. (2021, March 12). The food bank response to COVID, by the numbers. Feeding America, https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-blog/food-bank-response-covid-numbers
(2021, August 9). Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/tracking-the-covid-19-recessions-effects-on-food-housing-and