ByLowell R. Ricketts
If you or someone you know needs help finding food, here are available resources from Feeding America.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity (defined here as not having enough to eat “sometimes” or “often”) has become a more prevalent issue across the United States, as well as the Eighth District of the Federal Reserve System.The Eighth District of the Federal Reserve System covers all of Arkansas and parts of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. Research has shown that a lack of quality food is associated with detrimental health outcomes among children and adults.Seligman, Hilary K.; Laraia, Barbara A.; and Kushel, Margot B. “Food Insecurity Is Associated with Chronic Disease among Low-Income NHANES Participants.” The Journal of Nutrition, 140(2), February 2010, pp. 304-10. Jyoti, Diana F.; Frongillo, Edward A.; and Jones, Sonya J. “Food Insecurity Affects School Children’s Academic Performance, Weight Gain, and Social Skills.” The Journal of Nutrition, 135(12), December 2005, pp. 2831-39.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey results from Dec. 9-21, 2020, 13.7% of Americans were struggling with food insecurity.
The figure below provides an estimate of food insecurity prevalence in each state (as of late December) and an estimate of what it was prior to the pandemic (before March 13, 2020).
Current food insecurity was roughly similar across the states, with the exception of Mississippi. While rates of food insecurity ranged between 12% and 16% across six of the seven states within the Eighth District, approximately 19% of Mississippians were not getting enough to eat.
For most of the states, these rates are comparable to recent months. In contrast, Illinois saw a significant and sustained increase in food insecurity in mid-November 2020 (the rate was about 7% from Oct. 28, 2020 – Nov. 9, 2020).
Food insecurity was a challenge for many communities prior to the pandemic—rates ranged between 9% and 16% before March 2020.The Household Pulse Survey was first fielded April 23, 2020-May 5, 2020. Therefore, the share of individuals experiencing food insecurity prior to March 13, 2020, is based on the recollection of survey respondents in each survey wave. Effectively, the survey asks whether you have enough food now and whether you had enough back in March 2020. A comparison between the two periods shows that Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee experienced the greatest increase associated with the pandemic. The increase is a reflection, in part, of a historic shock to the labor market due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Consequently, many families lost their jobs, were furloughed or had their work hours or pay reduced.
NOTES: These charts show the share of individuals experiencing food insecurity across the seven states of the Eighth District. From top to bottom: the share experiencing food insecurity before the pandemic (before March 13, 2020), the share experiencing food insecurity from Dec. 9-21, 2020, and the difference between the two rates.
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey.
Among the individuals that reported not having enough food to eat, the survey asks a follow-up question to identify why. Individuals could select as many responses as were relevant from the following:
The lion’s share (rates ranged between 83% and 91%) of those experiencing food insecurity said they couldn’t afford food, which is associated with both insufficient income and a lack of emergency savings. Across the states, between 11% and 27% of those struggling with food insecurity cited being afraid or having an aversion to leaving their homes to get food. Unlike other recessions, the potentially deadly coronavirus has limited the ability of families to put food on the table for fear of infection. Inadequate supplies in stores were cited by between 9% and 19% of individuals across Eighth District states.
This is suggestive evidence that these individuals were struggling with food deserts (areas that have limited access to affordable and nutritious food). These deserts are a structural challenge for communities—especially communities of color—even during better times.Karpyn, Allison E.; Riser, Danielle; Tracy, Tara; Wang, Rui; and Shen Ye. “The changing landscape of food deserts.” UNSCN Nutrition, 44, pp. 46-53.
NOTE: These charts show the reasons food insecure individuals reported they did not have enough to eat (or not what they wanted to eat) as a share of all the food insecure individuals broken out by each of the seven states within the Eighth District.
Current rates of food insecurity indicate that much remains to be done to alleviate this hardship across Eighth District states. However, these rates would undoubtedly be higher if it were not for various resources provided to individuals in need, such as SNAP benefits and free food programs. During late December 2020, the share of residents receiving SNAP benefits ranged from 7% in Missouri to 22% in Mississippi.
Separately, the survey explores assistance channels among those that received free food. Across Eighth District states, between 8% and 12% of individuals received free groceries or a free meal. A follow-up question asking where they received those resources included the following choices:
As shown below, the resources varied across states among those that did receive assistance. For example, 23% of individuals in Indiana received assistance through child-based food programs. In contrast, this resource was about twice as prevalent in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Food pantries and food banks were particularly important in Arkansas and Indiana, as a majority of recipients received assistance from these nonprofit organizations. Religious organizations also played a notable role in providing assistance for residents in need, especially in Mississippi.
The support of family, friends and neighbors was also a key resource for at least a quarter of individuals in need across Eighth District states—highlighting the power of social networks to address these insecurities.
NOTE: These charts show the sources of free groceries or meals received as a share of all the recipients broken out by each of the seven states within the Eighth District.
Despite many of the resources devoted to meeting the food needs of families, food insecurity has remained a challenge before and during the pandemic. The vast majority of these struggling families said they couldn’t afford to put enough food on the table.
The recent benefits authorized by the U.S. Congress could alleviate some of the cost constraints, and future work will assess the impact of those benefits. Getting COVID-19 under control and helping individuals return to work from the pandemic-induced job losses will help many, but it likely won’t eradicate this hardship. Beyond these pandemic-specific responses, additional and innovative solutions are needed if communities are to ensure that all families have the nutrition they need to thrive.