The blog of the Urban Institute
April 28, 2020

More Than One in Five US Adults Experienced Food Insecurity in the Early Weeks of the Pandemic

April 28, 2020

New data from a nationally representative survey of nonelderly adults conducted between March 25 and April 10 show the COVID-19 pandemic has already taken a significant toll on families’ abilities to meet basic needs, especially their ability to afford an adequate diet.

  • Just over two in five nonelderly adults (41.5 percent) reported their families lost jobs, work hours, or work-related income because of the pandemic. Job and income losses are widespread but more prevalent among the families of low-income and Hispanic adults.
  • In response to the crisis, 30.6 percent of adults reported their families reduced spending on food; 46.5 percent of those who lost work or income reported doing so.
  • Food insecurity, defined as limited or uncertain availability of a nutritionally adequate diet, was the most commonly reported hardship among all adults and among adults in families who lost work or income. More than one in five (21.9 percent) report their household has experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days; the proportion increases to nearly one in three (29.6 percent) among families who lost work or income. 

Chart: how many people experiencing material hardship due to COVID-19 pandemic

Communities of color face higher levels of food insecurity—and greater health risks from COVID-19

Even in better times, food insecurity disproportionately affects low-income Hispanic and black adults, and these disparities are pronounced in the survey results.

Adults in households reporting income below the federal poverty level (FPL) and those with incomes between 100 and 250 percent of the FPL report food insecurity rates at 57.5 percent and 31.0 percent, respectively. Non-Hispanic black and Hispanic adults were more than twice as likely to report food insecurity in the past 30 days as white adults (33.9 percent and 33.3 percent, versus 16.3 percent).

Although survey data are not available for American Indian/Native American households, many in these communities already struggle with food insecurity. Emerging evidence suggests some are also at high risk of being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These data are particularly concerning in light of increasing evidence that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting the health of communities of color.

How can we keep families fed?

Federal and state policymakers have taken action to ramp up the federal nutrition program response to the pandemic. But the extent of material hardship suggests a very robust response will be needed for a very long time—well beyond the official end of the public health emergency. 

Potential policy solutions include:

  • Further boosting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for all households—including the maximum benefit, given that research shows the maximum per meal benefit doesn’t cover the cost of a low-income meal in 99 percent of US counties. Many proposals have called for a 15 percent increase of the maximum monthly SNAP benefit until the economy shows signs of sufficient recovery, as well as a boost in the minimum benefit from $16 to $30 per month. These proposals build on evidence from the boost in SNAP benefits during the Great Recession, which helped buffer food insecurity during a period of prolonged hardship.
  • Extending nationwide waivers permitting schools and other organizations to provide flexible assistance to families with children through existing child nutrition programs. Currently, these waivers are set to expire on June 30. But need is expected to persist throughout the summer, and thus, waivers will need to be extended until the fall. 
  • Supporting broader implementation of Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), which enables states to disperse monthly benefits equal to the value of school meals to families with children via an existing EBT card (such as SNAP) or a newly issued EBT card for the many families not enrolled in SNAP who would still qualify for free or reduced price lunch. But as states struggle to manage the rapid increase in SNAP applications and uncertain availability of EBT cards, there may be delays in issuing new cards, so multiple strategies to support households with kids may be necessary.
  • Waiving SNAP work requirements for college students. Students enrolled at least part time in college and who don't meet other exceptions (such as having a disability or a child who requires care) must be enrolled in the Federal Work-Study Program or work a minimum of 20 hours a week to receive SNAP benefits. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act waived work requirements for SNAP participants subject to these requirements, but the same consideration was not put forward for students who lost employment. Students may be more vulnerable to food insecurity than other adults in the wake of a recession, and although some students may receive emergency aid through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, this support varies by the institution they attend, both in amount and timing.
  • Avoiding implementation of rules that would restrict access to SNAP, including reinstating work requirements while unemployment is high (currently, requirements are only suspended until the end of the public health emergency) or proposed changes to SNAP eligibility rules and expense deductions.

These new data show levels of food insecurity among nonelderly adults were already high early in the pandemic response, especially among those who reported losing jobs or income.

As people are encouraged to stock up on food and limit trips to grocery stores, food insecurity is a critical aspect of the current public health crisis. If more families are unable to afford enough food and meet other basic needs during the pandemic, they and their communities may face adverse health consequences in both the short and long term. 

Gladys Socop helps to bag up food boxes while volunteering at a pop-up food pantry hosted by Pan Y Cafe in Chelsea, MA on April 14, 2020. Organized by Chelsea Collaborative, the food distribution has been operating for over three weeks with food donated by local businesses and food pantries and delivered to at-need families in Chelsea. (Photo by Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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