Unfortunately, food insecurity or food poverty is not a recent issue to face the US. In fact, nearly 14 million American households faced food insecurity at some point in 2019. Since 2010, food insecurity has never fallen below 10%, meaning for a consistent 22 years at least 1 in 10 US households have at some point, not had enough food for everyone living in it.
Unsurprisingly, a global pandemic hasn’t helped matters. The rising levels of unemployment, illness and reduced access to school nutrition programs due to school closures that accompanied COVID, meant that food insecurity among adults and children increased during this time.
But nearly 3 years after the world declared we were officially battling a global pandemic, have things improved for the food insecure in the US? Let’s find out.
FeedingAmerica.org defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active and healthy life. This could be just a temporary situation – perhaps someone is between employment or facing an extra monthly expense such as a car or home repairs which means they are unable to make ends meet. However, all too often the situation is more long term, with families and individuals struggling to secure enough food to survive on a day-to-day basis, for much longer periods of time.
Most communities in America contain people experiencing food insecurity, with those in rural areas and from minority backgrounds being the worst affected.
In an article for the Guardian, Nikki Lakhani references a 2021 investigation into food poverty that found gaping racial inequalities in the availability of adequate nutrition, threatening the long-term prospects of a generation of minority children.
The disparities varied across states but one example showed that Black families in Texas reported ‘hunger’ at four times the rate of white families in the same state. Second only to Black families, Latino families were found to have experienced high instances of ‘hunger’, with rates ranging from 16%-25% across the country. ‘Hunger’ was defined as not having enough to eat sometimes or often during the previous week.
In large part this is due to ongoing racial and economic inequalities. For example, in 2019, the unemployment rate for Black Americans was double that for white Americans. Black workers on an hourly rate were 26% more likely than white workers to be on or below the $7.25 federal minimum wage.
However, although more prevalent amongst certain ethnicities, food insecurity has the power to affect people of all creeds and colors across the US.
Using data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), an NPR.org article states that even before the pandemic hit, at some point during 2019 some 13.7 million households, or 10.5% of all U.S. households, experienced food insecurity. That works out to more than 35 million Americans who were either unable to acquire enough food to meet their needs, or were uncertain of where their next meal might come from.
However, although this seems amazingly high, the article goes on to say that prior to the pandemic, the number of families experiencing food insecurity had actually been steadily falling. 2018 and 2017 rates of food insecurity were reported at 11.1% and 11.8% respectively.
As we near the end of 2022, things have not greatly improved. The Guardian argues that food insecurity remains stubbornly high in the US. Figures are only slightly down from 2021, and are lower than 2020 when, at the height of Covid lockdowns and widespread layoffs record numbers of people were relying on food banks and food stamps.
Overall, there may be incremental improvements if you broadly compare 2020, 2021 and 2022, but for some groups, things have actually got worse – especially adult only households including women and elderly people living alone.
School closures played a significant part in driving up the number of families experiencing food insecurity. Thirty million children in the US depend on free or reduced-cost school meals as part of their daily diet (sometimes breakfast and lunch). According to globalcitizen.org, during the pandemic 75% of these children were not receiving their usual meals. A worrying statistic considering the obvious impact lack of adequate food can have on academic performance and short and long-term health.
Children who live in food-insecure households are likely to get sick more often, recover from illness more slowly, and end up in the emergency room more frequently, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
And while political in-fighting delayed economic relief for those that really needed it during COVID, the rate of food insecurity was never going to go anywhere but up.
In the week just before Christmas 2020, former president Donald Trump stalled signing the third COVID relief package. In the same week, an estimated 45 million Americans reported not having enough to eat.
Many households that suffer food insecurity do not qualify for federal nutrition programs and are forced to seek assistance through private organizations and charity food banks. COVID also put tremendous strain on these community functions, set up to help those in need because job losses and business closures as well as illness meant more and more Americans needed to lean on these resources to fill their refrigerators and cupboards.
AP News reported that Feeding America, the nation’s largest anti-hunger organization, scrambled to keep up as states locked down and schools closed. The organization saw a 60% average increase in food bank users during the pandemic with about 4 in 10 being first-timers.
The AP News analysis of Feeding America data found the organization distributed nearly 57% more food in the third quarter of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.
Almost three years after the start of the pandemic, we now have other variables that need adding to the mix, such as the impact of failing supply chains and the biggest inflation crisis for 40 years. These mean increasing food prices and general cost of living expenses have had a huge impact on those already struggling to make ends meet and those that were ‘just getting by’ are now facing food insecurity for the first time. COVID measures such as additional food stamp programs have also long ended.
The bad news is, the lines seen at many food banks are now reported to be even greater than those witnessed during the height of the pandemic as families struggle to keep up with the crippling rise in food prices. Despite official statistics showing food insecurity rates slightly declining from 2021 to 2022, a CNBC article reports that a Phoenix food bank’s main distribution center handed out food packages to 4,271 families during the third week in June 2022, a 78% increase over the 2,396 families served during the same week the previous year.
The article confirms that this is not an isolated incident, as a Houston Food Bank is handing out an average of 610,000 pounds of food daily, up from 500,000 pounds a day before the pandemic.
If it wasn’t for government intervention during the pandemic, the pain would have been much worse for those suffering food insecurity in America.
Although repeatedly delayed and shrouded in red tape, the unprecedented measures taken included three relief payments, enhanced unemployment insurance and the expansion of food stamps. These actions were taken to assist those most in need of food and financial support in a time of crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic shook the world and as the figures have shown, only exacerbated the food insecurity crisis in America. But it also helped to further highlight that these problems were already embedded within society pre-2020 and were historically heavily weighted against families from poorer communities and minority backgrounds.
The issue is never going to simply resolve itself. The solution is not a straightforward one but will almost certainly be found at a political level. Food insecurity is here for the long haul, but instead of treating the symptoms with initiatives such as food banks, a closer lens needs to be applied to the fundamental cause or more likely causes of this crisis. This will support a truly sustainable and long-term reduction of those experiencing food insecurity.
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