In 2018, around 11% of U.S. households reported they were food insecure at some point per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – meaning they were without reliable access to a sufficient amount of quality food. The percentage of households as of April 2020 that are deemed food insecure has been estimated between 22-38%. Thus, at minimum, the number of households that lack the resources for a stable food supply has doubled, and possibly tripled. The rates of food insecurity at present are higher than at any point since data collection began.
Even more unsettling, according to Brookings, one survey concluded that more than 17% of mothers with children 12 and under reported that since the Covid-19 pandemic started, “the children in my household were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.” These findings are part of a multi-survey initiative the uses validated questions from the USDA to understand trends.
But lack of resources isn’t just about food itself, it’s about all the other associated and underlying issues that pertain to how we access quality food and who can afford it. For example, food insecure households are 47% more likely to visit an emergency room, and be admitted. Lack of access to nutritious food has been proven to lead to obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and a myriad of other health problems.
Food insecurity is also emotional, and the source of a significant amount of familial stress. For both adults and children, the fear associated with not knowing where meals will come from takes a toll on mental health. This includes increased reports of depressions, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. All of which are health care issues – despite the fact that food itself is not often thought of as health care.
However, research has linked programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) with improved health outcomes and lower health care costs. The same can be said for the second largest anti-hunger effort in the U.S., the National School Lunch Program (second only to SMAP) that feeds nearly 30 million children every day. Or did before the Covid-19 pandemic. Thus, current benefits addressing food needs of our most vulnerable are not able to meet demand under current circumstances.
The same can be said for food banks as they struggle with increased demand since the onset of the pandemic. According to National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM) Foundation, 98% of food banks in America are reporting increased demand, with about 40% reporting immediate critical funding shortfalls. Feeding Americaasserts that there is “soaring demand” and “plummeting supply” as a direct result of the pandemic. They also contend that almost 70% of food banks are accepting and in need of volunteers to help out.
Given the deep rooted and complex challenges associated with supply and distribution of food, there is no quick policy fix. If schools reopen and parents go back to work, some of the insecurity can be filled, but there is no guarantee. Benefits can certainly be increased and distribution chains can be made more efficient, but the food security traumas created during Covid-19 are going to be felt for some time. And possibly exacerbated by a second wave of shutdowns.
Volunteers are needed. Donations are needed. Funding is needed. And, looking out for your neighbor is vital. There are no individual solutions to this growing problem. It will literally take the village.
To learn more about food insecurity in the U.S., in your state, congressional district, and county, visit: Map the Meal Gap by Feeding America.
And if you or someone you know is currently struggling to feed loved ones, here are some programs and agency efforts that can be of assistance:
Meals on Wheels
World Food Program
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
Health Policy, Human Rights, Big Ideas. Strategic Vision.