As of April 2020, the percentage of food-insecure households was estimated between 22 and 38 percent, compared to around 11 percent in 2018. At a minimum, the number of households that lack the resources for a stable food supply has doubled, and possibly tripled, making current rates of food insecurity higher than at any point since data collection began.
Even more worrying, a Brookings survey concluded that more than 17 percent of mothers with children 12 and under reported that since the COVID-19 pandemic started, “the children in my household were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.”
But lack of resources isn’t just about food itself, it’s about all the other associated and underlying issues that pertain to food access and affordability. For example, food insecure households are 47 percent more likely to visit and be admitted to an emergency room. Lack of access to nutritious food has been proven to lead to obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and a plethora of other health problems.
Food insecurity is also emotional, and the source of a significant amount of familial stress. For both adults and children, the fear associated with not knowing where meals will come from takes a toll on mental health. This includes increased reports of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
However, research has linked programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with improved health outcomes and lower healthcare costs. The same can be said for the second largest anti-hunger effort in the US, the National School Lunch Program that feeds nearly 30 million children every day. Or, at least they did before the pandemic. Unfortunately, supply is unable to meet the demand under current circumstances.
The same can be said for food banks as they’ve struggled with increased demand since the onset of the pandemic. According to the National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM) Foundation, 98 percent of food banks in America are reporting increased demand, with about 40 percent reporting immediate critical shortfalls.
Given the deep rooted and complex challenges associated with supply and distribution of food, there is no quick policy fix. If schools reopen and parents go back to work, some of the insecurity can be filled, but there is no guarantee. Benefits can certainly be increased and distribution chains can be made more efficient, but the food security traumas created during COVID-19 are going to be felt for some time.