Urban Wire Food Insecurity Has Improved since 2020, but the Work Isn't Done Yet
Elaine Waxman, Poonam Gupta, Olivia Fiol
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Data from the Urban Institute’s Health Reform Monitoring Survey show that household food insecurity fell by nearly 30 percent between spring 2020 and 2021. In March and April 2020, during the first few weeks of the pandemic, more than 1 in 5 adults (21.7 percent) ages 18 to 64 reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous 30 days. By April 2021, this share had declined to 15.3 percent, or approximately 1 in 7.

This downward trend was apparent across all racial and ethnic groups. However, worrisome disparities persist among communities of color. More than 1 in 4 Hispanic/Latinx adults (25.7 percent) were food insecure in April 2021, the highest rate among groups surveyed.

Though Black adults saw greater improvements than Hispanic/Latinx adults over the past year, declining from about 1 in 3 (33.1 percent) to about 1 in 5 (19.6 percent), these adults continue to experience food insecurity at much higher rates than white adults. About 1 in 9 (11.7 percent) of white adults were food insecure in April 2021, down from 16.6 percent a year ago. 

Nutrition policy changes during the pandemic, including temporarily increasing the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit, facilitating broader access to school meal programs, increasing support for the charitable food system and implementing the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program for children losing school meals helped provide a buffer for many families struggling to afford an adequate diet. Enhanced unemployment benefits and periodic economic impact payments (stimulus checks or recovery rebates) have provided households with additional resources that can help them meet basic needs.

Although unemployment rates continue to improve, the recovery is uneven. Experience from the Great Recession provides a sober warning—it took approximately a decade before food insecurity rates returned to pre–Great Recession levels.

The work of ensuring all households can consistently afford a healthy diet is far from over, especially because food prices continue to increase, and some policy tools, such as the current 15 percent increase in the maximum SNAP benefit, are set to expire by the end of the fiscal year.

SNAP is our first line of defense against food insecurity among federal nutrition programs. Evidence demonstrates the program’s role in reducing food hardship and poverty, and increasing evidence shows SNAP can help reduce health expenditures.

But the Thrifty Food Plan, which serves as the basis for the SNAP benefit amount, is persistently inadequate, and the program’s failure to account for the wide geographic variation in food prices across the US erodes SNAP’s purchasing power for program participants.

With Craig Gundersen at the University of Illinois and in collaboration with Feeding America, we’ve been updating our earlier analysis of the gap between the maximum SNAP benefit per meal and the average cost of a low-income meal in every US county.

Using 2020 food price data from NielsenIQ, our initial result is similar to our first evaluation of 2015 data: SNAP does not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 96 percent of US counties.

Early numbers show the SNAP meal-cost gap, weighted for population size, averages 22 percent across all US counties. Among the 20 counties in 14 states with the highest SNAP meal-cost gap, the difference between the maximum per meal benefit and the cost of a low-income meal ranges from 64 percent to 213 percent.

Even when we add 15 percent to the maximum benefit, as is currently authorized under the American Rescue Plan Act, 40.5 percent of counties in the US still show a gap between the cost of a low-income meal and the maximum SNAP benefit. This shortfall is significant because the maximum benefit is the amount available to households found to have no available income for food; prepandemic, nearly 4 in 10 SNAP households qualified for the maximum benefit.(A new interactive map showing county-level shortfalls will be available in the next few weeks.)

Food insecurity is a significant public health problem that worsened during the pandemic. It is also a multifaceted problem that requires a robust, sustained effort to eradicate, a goal we have yet to achieve, despite the bounty of the US food system.

But we can do better. That means not just buffering vulnerability—although doing so is critical—it also means building resilience for the future.

The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success. 

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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Tags COVID-19
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