Brief Charitable Food Use Increased Nearly 50 Percent from 2019 to 2020
Findings from the December 2020 Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey
Elaine Waxman, Poonam Gupta, Dulce Gonzalez
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A large increase in demand for charitable food assistance across the US has followed the rise in food insecurity, economic disruption, and material hardship experienced by families during the COVID-19 pandemic recession. In this brief, we use data from the December 2020 round of the Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey (WBNS), a nationally representative survey of more than 7,500 adults ages 18 to 64, to examine charitable food use (defined as the use of free groceries or free meals) this past year compared with use in 2019 as well as how use of assistance in 2020 varies across demographic groups. We find the following:

  • Adults’ reported household use of charitable food in the past 12 months grew almost 50 percent between December 2019 and December 2020, from 13.2 percent of nonelderly adults to 19.7 percent, or almost in one in five adults. That translates to about 13.1 million nonelderly adults who newly reported accessing charitable food in 2020 when compared with 2019.
  • Use of charitable food between 2019 and 2020 has increased across all racial and ethnic groups we examined. Rates of increase were similar for white adults (28.9 percent) and Black adults (29.4 percent), but there were large disparities in charitable food use between white and Black adults before the pandemic. The increase was particularly pronounced for Hispanic/Latinx adults (89.2 percent) and for non–Hispanic/Latinx adults who are not Black or white (87.4 percent; this includes adults who identify with other racial or ethnic categories, such as Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, and any other race or more than one race).
  • Adults who identify as Black or Hispanic/Latinx were almost three times more likely than white adults to report accessing charitable food during 2020 (33.0, 33.3, and 12.5 percent, respectively), likely reflecting both higher rates of need before the pandemic and the recession’s significant impact on households of color. 
  • Almost one in four adults (23.6 percent) living with children accessed charitable food in 2020 compared with about one in six adults (16.5 percent) in households without children.
  • Adults with a disability or who live with a household member with a disability (38.8 percent) were more likely to seek charitable food assistance than adults with no disability in the household (16.3 percent): nearly 4 in 10 did so in 2020.
  • Adults who are noncitizens or who live with any noncitizen relatives (34.2 percent) were more likely to seek charitable food assistance in 2020 than adults living in households where all family members are citizens (18 percent). 
  • Among adults who reported not using charitable food in 2020, about half (49.3 percent) knew of a community resource for charitable food, and a little more than half (52.9 percent) reported they were not at all or not too comfortable seeking charitable food assistance if they had a need.
Research Areas Health and health care Families Race and equity
Tags Family and household data Racial and ethnic disparities Immigrant children, families, and communities
Policy Centers Health Policy Center Income and Benefits Policy Center