Brief Two Years into the Pandemic, Charitable Food Remains a Key Resource for One in Six Adults
Findings from the December 2021 Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey
Poonam Gupta, Julio Salas, Elaine Waxman
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Despite federal stopgap policies and a substantial charitable food response to mitigate the effects of food insecurity during the pandemic, hunger remains a reality for many across the US. In this brief, we analyze data from the December 2021, 2020, and 2019 rounds of the Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey (WBNS), a nationally representative survey of more than 8,000 adults ages 18 to 64, to examine trends in free-grocery or free-meal use. We find the following:

  • Nonelderly adults’ reported household use of charitable food in the past 12 months decreased by about 10 percent between December 2020 and December 2021, which translates to about 4.0 million fewer nonelderly adults who reported accessing charitable food in 2021 than in 2020. However, rates of charitable food use remain significantly elevated above prepandemic rates.
  • Black and Hispanic/Latinx adults were almost three times more likely than white adults to report accessing charitable food during 2021 and saw no significant decline in use between 2020 and 2021, reflecting the recession’s ongoing impact on these households and persistent disparities in food hardship when compared with white adults.
  • Adults experiencing food insecurity, especially very low food security (the most severe form), reported high levels of charitable food use. Two in five adults reporting low food security and about half of adults reporting very low food security accessed charitable food in the 12 months prior to December 2021.
  • Families with children show a continued need for charitable food services, especially as access to school meals was tenuous during school closures and quarantine periods. Adults living with children under the age of 19 were 50 percent more likely to report use of charitable food than adults who were not living with children in 2021. This trend was particularly more pronounced for Black and Hispanic/Latinx adults with children, compared to white adults with children.
  • Approximately one in three adults with a disability or who live with a household member with a disability reported household use of charitable food in 2021, compared with about one in seven adults with no disability in their household.
  • Adults who are noncitizens or who live with noncitizen relatives were twice as likely to seek charitable food assistance in 2021 than adults living in households with all citizens, likely reflecting the challenges and perceived risks of accessing public safety net programs.
  • Among low-income adults who reported not using charitable food in 2021, more than half did not know of a community resource for charitable food, and about half reported they were not at all or not too comfortable seeking assistance if they had a need. Additionally, three in five adults experiencing food insecurity who did not receive charitable food in 2021 said they did not know of a community resource, and three in five were not comfortable seeking assistance.
Research Areas Immigration Social safety net Race and equity
Tags Charitable giving Families with low incomes Food insecurity and hunger Emergency food networks COVID-19
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center
Research Methods Data analysis