Food insecurity increased “significantly” for households with children in 2020 during the hard economic times created by the pandemic, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday.
Additionally, food insecurity rose for people living in Black and Hispanic households, even though the overall U.S. food insecurity rate of 10.5%, or 13.8 million households, remained the same between 2019 and 2020.
Food insecurity refers to a family’s inability to afford enough nutritious food during the course of a year.
While the unchanged 2019-20 figures indicate that federal and charitable programs designed to help people in need during the pandemic worked to some degree, they also show that when it comes to children and people of color, the nation still has a long way to go toward ensuring that Americans are treated equitably, scholars and observers said.
“It’s clear our support systems have built-in flaws,” said Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University and an expert on child hunger. “There are major problems with the way we treat children and the way we treat Black and Latino families in America. We fail to protect those who need the most protecting.”
The report, “Household Food Security in the United States in 2020″ by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, was based on a national survey taken among 34,330 households that are a representative sample of the U.S. population of about 130 million households.
Findings showed that 7.6% of households with children, nearly three million families, were food insecure, compared with 6.5% in 2019.
The report also indicated an uptick in the number of households with children living in households enduring very low food security. Mired in deep poverty, such households have members who report disrupted eating patterns and skipped meals. Parents are known to stop eating so that their children can, but a household with very low food security may be one in which even the children aren’t getting all their meals.
In 2020, around 0.8% of households with children, or 322,000 families, faced very low food security. In 2019, the number was 0.6%.
Nationwide among Black individuals, 24% experienced food insecurity in 2020, up from 19.2% in 2019, according to an analysis of federal figures by Chicago-based Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief agency in the country. For Latino individuals, there was an increase from 15.8% in 2019 to 19.3% in 2020. Compared with white individuals, Black individuals were 3.2 times more likely and Latino individuals were 2.5 times more likely to experience food insecurity, Feeding America stated.
“The report reveals a deepening divide across racial and ethnic lines,” according to a Feeding America statement Wednesday.
Feeding America’s charitable network of food banks distributed more than six billion meals in 2020, an increase of 44% over 2019, the statement added.
While local statistics weren’t presented in the USDA report, agencies charged with feeding low-income residents of the Philadelphia region say they’ve had to double and triple their output of food during the pandemic.
To be sure, along with charities, federal feeding programs such as food stamps (now known as SNAP), as well as WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and the National School Lunch Program helped keep people alive as breadwinners lost jobs to the pandemic, said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a nationwide direct service and advocacy organization in New York.
“While hunger was already a massive, systemic problem in all 50 states before COVID-19 hit the U.S., domestic hunger surged during the pandemic,” Berg said in a statement. But, he added, “the nation avoided mass starvation mostly because the federal government stepped in. Given that the pandemic is far from over, we need that aid to continue.”
Luis Guardia, president of the Washington-based Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), the nation’s largest anti-hunger lobby, agreed.
“We strongly encourage lawmakers to continue making additional strides to end hunger in America,” he said. “Hunger is solvable. We just need the political will to make it happen.”
The USDA report didn’t surprise Loree Jones, CEO of Philabundance, the local hunger-relief agency that’s part of Feeding America.
“We know that our most vulnerable folks are children and people of color,” she said. “The pandemic hit people of color and poor folks hard.”
Low-income people are over-represented in the kind of service-sector jobs that were cut first when COVID-19 struck, scholars have said.
Jones said her agency went from distributing 26 million to 28 million pounds of food to people in the region in 2019 to 56 million pounds in 2020.
Patterns were similar at Hunting Park-based Share Food Program, the largest hunger-relief agency in the area. Food distribution soared from 20 million pounds in 2019 to 62 million pounds in 2020, according to George Matysik, Share’s executive director.
“Over the course of last year, we saw months that showed the biggest spikes in food insecurity in the last 50 years in this country,” he said.
As the pandemic continues, some programs meant to pick up the burden of those who lost their livelihoods will, or already have, run out, noted Kathy Fisher, policy manager at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
And that’s bad news for people dealing with hunger.
Augmented unemployment benefits are depleted, and eviction moratoriums are scheduled to sunset, Fisher said. While stimulus checks as well as child tax credits are credited with saving lives, they are slated to end this year, as are enhanced SNAP benefits.
When such aid is gone, Fisher said, low-income people have to cut somewhere. “So, when push comes to shove, they skimp on food,” she said. “The money goes instead to rent and utilities.”
And food insecurity rises.
The USDA report didn’t delve into local statistics, but it did provide some state numbers. For example, Pennsylvania’s food insecurity rate in 2020 was 9.9% as compared with the national 10.5% figure. In New Jersey, it was 8.4%.
But while very low food security registered at 4.1% nationally, the Pennsylvania rate actually was higher at 4.2%.
“It just goes to show that we have higher levels of deep poverty in Pennsylvania,” Fisher said. “We have a higher share here of people who are really struggling.”
In addition to households with children and people of color, rates of food insecurity in 2020 were, according to the USDA report, statistically significantly higher than the 10.5% for other groups as well, including: households with children headed by a single woman (27.7%), or a single man (16.3%); and households of women living alone (5.1%) and men living alone (5.7%).
The report also showed that about 20.6% of all food-insecure households in last year included elderly adults.
At its core, Chilton said, what the USDA report shows is that more help is required.
“We need massive investments in families with kids, especially for those who have been and continue to be discriminated against.
“Let’s hope that increases in SNAP, and improved child tax credits, will remain in place and be improved over time.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.