Brief More Than One in Six Adults Were Food Insecure Two Months into the COVID-19 Recession
Findings from the May 14–27 Coronavirus Tracking Survey
Elaine Waxman, Poonam Gupta, Michael Karpman
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The recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has put millions of families at risk of experiencing food insecurity, with record numbers of unemployment insurance claims and long lines at food banks across the US. In March 2020, Congress acted to ameliorate the level of food hardship by increasing funding for federal nutrition programs and providing flexibility for child nutrition programs, including efforts to assist schools in providing children with meals during school closures. In this brief, we use data from the first wave of the Urban Institute’s Coronavirus Tracking Survey, fielded May 14 through 27, 2020, to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected food insecurity and access to school meals and charitable food distribution for adults and their families in the US. We find the following:


  • In May 2020, more than one in six nonelderly adults (17.7 percent) and more than one in five parents living with children under 19 (21.8 percent) reported that their households experienced food insecurity during the prior 30 days. These rates were moderately lower than those reported in March/April 2020, when 20.9 percent of adults and 24.6 percent of parents reported food insecurity.
  • Food insecurity continued disproportionately affecting adults whose families have experienced employment disruptions during the pandemic (25.3 percent) and adults with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level (31.9 percent). 
  • Marked racial and ethnic disparities in food insecurity persisted; Hispanic adults’ and Black adults’ household food insecurity rates were 27.1 percent and 27.0 percent, approximately double that of white adults’ households (13.5 percent). One in four adults in families with noncitizens (25.5 percent) reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous 30 days, compared with 16.8 percent of adults whose family members were all citizens.
  • Nearly one in eight adults (12.1 percent) and more than one in seven adults whose families have experienced employment or income losses (14.8 percent) reported that their households received charitable food, such as groceries from a food pantry or free meals, in the previous 30 days. Receipt of charitable food was more common among parents living with children (17.2 percent), especially those with lower incomes (27.5 percent).
  • Though nearly one in three (30.9 percent) parents of school-age children reported receiving school-based meals during pandemic school closures, only 61.0 percent of parents whose families received free or reduced-price meals during the school year reported receiving school meal assistance during closures. As a result, about two in five parents with low incomes appear not to have been reached by efforts to replace school food at the time of the survey.
Research Areas Social safety net
Tags Hunger and food assistance School breakfast and lunch From Safety Net to Solid Ground
Policy Centers Health Policy Center Income and Benefits Policy Center