Too many people are going hungry in the U.S.
In 2021, 10.2% of households (13.5 million) were food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, which means they had difficulty acquiring adequate food at some point during the year due to lack of money or other resources. This is barely an improvement from the peak of the pandemic in 2020, when 10.5% of households (13.8 million) were food insecure.
What’s more, in December 2020, 1 in 7 Americans reported they did not have enough food to eat in the past week, indicating food insufficiency—a more severe form of food insecurity. The situation has improved slightly since then: In May 2022, that figure was 1 in 9, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“It’s a lot worse than people want to admit,” says Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that tracks hunger and advocates for solutions to eradicate it. “We had a hunger crisis in the country before and, like with a lot of things, COVID-19 just made it worse.”
Households facing hunger amid the COVID-19 crisis could have been even higher if the federal government and food banks had not stepped up. People receiving unemployment benefits and child tax credits reported food as a top spending category for those funds, and enrollment in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) surged 12% in 2020 from the year prior and continued to grow an additional 4% in 2021. Child nutrition waivers implemented in March 2020 allowed students in public schools to receive free breakfasts and lunches regardless of their financial status. Congress also expanded the Child Tax Credit for 2021, providing supplemental income for qualifying families each month. Food banks across the country served 55% percent more people in the year after the pandemic began, according to Feeding America, whose food banks distributed 6 billion meals in 2020 and were expected to distribute 6.5 billion meals in 2021.
“It’s a lot worse than people want to admit. We had a hunger crisis in the country before and, like with a lot of things, COVID-19 just made it worse.”
The nation now faces the prospect of a fresh wave of hunger. Amid lower rates of COVID-19 infection and deaths, federal officials have rolled back many of the emergency benefits, including the child nutrition waivers and the Child Tax Credit. At the same time, ongoing supply chain challenges, the war in Ukraine and inflation have continued to disrupt food access.
“The pandemic was a major disruption that is going to be felt for a while,” Guardia says. “We need to make sure that we don’t set ourselves up for another crisis.”
Those Hardest Hit
The pandemic exposed the extent to which vulnerable populations are affected by lack of access to food.
Black and Hispanic households are twice as likely to face food insufficiency than their white counterparts, with nearly 20% of adults in those communities reporting that they did not have enough food to eat in the last week, according to the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey data for May 2022.
Additionally, a report from The Williams Institute found that from July 21 to October 11, 2021, 12.7% of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) reported experiencing food insufficiency, compared with 7.8% of non-LGBT adults. Some groups reported experiencing even higher rates of food insufficiency, including 17% of LGBT people of color and 20% of transgender individuals. Women, older adults, and people who live with children or on tribal lands were also more vulnerable.
“These are all people that we’ve seen historically disadvantaged when it comes to economic welfare and access to health care, so it’s not too big of a jump to see that they are going to suffer more from hunger,” Guardia says.
Food security and economic stability are inextricably linked. The reason why people do not have enough to eat is because they cannot afford to buy food, which is why high rates of unemployment at the onset of the pandemic prompted lines of cars snaking outside food banks.
“At the end of the day, people want to put food on the table,” Guardia says. “People don’t aspire to go to the food lines.”
Even when individuals in need have access to food, nutritious items can be hard to come by. Food banks often lack the capacity to provide fresh fruits and vegetables, and individuals who rely on food banks may eat imbalanced diets that lead to health problems. Moreover, many people who face food insecurity live in food deserts, where grocery stores with fresh options are lacking.
“We know access to food and healthy foods are a social determinant of health,” says Holly Parker, chief strategy and program officer at Fair Food Network, a national nonprofit based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “They are the factors that underlie our overall ability to live a healthy, productive life.”
With an estimated 21.6 million households receiving SNAP benefits, the federal program is one of the most powerful tools available to address hunger. For every meal provided by Feeding America—
the nation’s largest network of food banks—SNAP pays for nine. SNAP is also an effective program for reaching kids, since many of its recipients are families with young children. But the program isn’t perfect: A June 2021 USDA study found nearly 9 in 10 SNAP participants reported facing barriers to a healthy diet, citing the cost of nutritious foods as the most common challenge.
The government has taken steps in recent years to help SNAP participants afford more nutritious food. In August 2021, the USDA released a reevaluation of its Thrifty Food Plan, which is used to calculate SNAP benefits. The reevaluation better reflects the cost of healthy food and took recent nutrition guidelines into account, leading to an increase of $36.24 in the maximum benefit per person, per month for fiscal year 2022. This marked the first change in the plan’s purchasing power since 1975.
Nonprofit organizations are attempting to expand access to healthy food even more. Fair Food Network, for example, pioneered the Double Up Food Bucks program, which matches food stamp dollars that SNAP recipients spend on fresh fruits and vegetables, in most cases up to $20 per day. The program now exists in 30 states and serves more than 760,000 people.
One of the biggest challenges in addressing food insecurity is the shame or guilt that many people feel when they face it. Parents often hide food insecurity from their own children, sometimes opting to go without food themselves. Research shows that people may also hesitate to access public benefits or visit food pantries because they are concerned, they might be taking food away from someone more in need.
As high rates of food insecurity persist, collective efforts to proactively address the problem are critical.
“Everybody is a stakeholder,” Guardia says. “Food insecurity affects everybody: It affects the people who suffer directly from it, but also us as a country and as a community. And that affects the economy and all of our systems.”