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Cars line up at a food distribution site for those impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in Inglewood, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Economic Anxiety Index®

44% of Americans fear they won’t be able to afford food, poll finds

Samantha Fields May 7, 2020
Cars line up at a food distribution site for those impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in Inglewood, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Most days now, Naomi Hayes is not hungry, exactly, but she often feels like she could eat a little more. She doesn’t, though. Neither does her 73-year-old mother, who lives with her.

“That’s something that we have to think about,” said Hayes, who has lost all her income in the last two months.

Before the pandemic, she worked as a nanny and a personal assistant in Madison, Wisconsin, and though she sometimes worried about money, she was “holding it down,” she said. Paying the rent and utilities, buying groceries, covering all expenses for both her and her mom. 

But ever since her paychecks stopped, Hayes and her mom have started eating less and rationing food to make what they get from the local food bank go further. 

“Oh, my God, I’m so afraid,” she said. “For my income just to stop, and having to depend on people, it’s very scary.”

Just two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, 44% of Americans are afraid they won’t be able to afford food, the latest Marketplace-Edison Research Poll found. The numbers are even higher for those making less than $50,000, for gig workers and for those who are temporarily unemployed. 

“That high of a percentage of people being afraid that they can’t afford groceries does not surprise me at all,” said Lisa Scales, president and CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. 

“That’s what stands out to me more than anything … from the very first week of our crisis response, there were so many people who were panicked and fearful about the uncertainty of the future, and their ability to get food.”

As with so many of the health and economic impacts of COVID-19, the fear of not being able to afford food is hitting people of color particularly hard. Sixty-three percent of Hispanics and 47% of African Americans are afraid they won’t be able to afford groceries, compared to 39% of whites. 

“That fear is justified,” said Charles Platkin, executive director of the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center. “Because people have lost their jobs, and they are living paycheck to paycheck … and it’s going to be ongoing, it’s not going to just get better as soon as the economy opens up.”

Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture considered just over 11% of Americans to be food insecure, meaning that “at times during the year, these households were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members.”

Now, many of those who are newly unemployed and struggling to afford groceries are, like Hayes, turning to food banks and food pantries for the first time. Feeding America, which has a nationwide network of food banks, has seen a 70% increase in demand since the outbreak began. Enrollment in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is up, too — the Pittsburgh food bank is enrolling twice the number of people it normally does through its outreach program. 

“It’s really a stark illustration of how close so many people in this country are to needing help,” said Kate Leone, Feeding America’s chief government relations officer. “We know from the experience we saw with the government shutdown that so many Americans are one paycheck away from not having the money to pay their bills. That is just something we’ve known in the food bank system, because we’re a little bit of a canary in the coal mine.”

Even before the first spike in weekly unemployment claims, in late March, food banks had already started seeing a surge in demand. Since then, it has only grown bigger and more visible.

Photos and videos outside food banks, of thousands of cars packed into a parking lot in San Antonio, and a mile-long line of cars snaking down a road near Pittsburgh, went viral on social media. In New York, lines of people regularly stretch down blocks and around corners.

“It’s just really ballooned beyond what many people could ever have predicted just two, three months before this,” said Jerome Nathaniel, associate director of policy and government relations at City Harvest, which distributes emergency food aid in New York City. “We’re learning as we go about the true impact of this. It’s really hard to even say what the need is now relative to what it’s going to be next year.”

Food banks are anticipating need will remain high for at least the next year to 18 months, as cities and states start to reopen, and many are concerned about the possibility of running out of resources. 

“As this crisis persists into the summer, fall, and even into next winter, we have a very real concern about being able to keep up with demand,” Scales said. “The thought of not being able to keep up with the demand, it’s crushing to us.”

Feeding America is concerned, too — about rising costs, about the logistics of acquiring and storing enough food and getting it to everyone who needs it, and about the long-term economic impact of so many millions of people not being able to afford groceries. Because of that, the organization is advocating for an increase in SNAP benefits.

“That will help the economy, and it will help feed people when they need it,” Leone said. “It is such a double impact. It really will help relieve some of the pressure on the charitable system, but also help people going to local stores and making sure those stores stay open.”

In some ways, the scale of the crisis — more than 33 million unemployed in seven weeks — and the images of people standing in line for food, are reminiscent of the Great Depression, but Platkin said it’s too soon to be drawing comparisons. 

“I don’t know how we’re going to look at the lines outside food pantries and soup kitchens, 25 years, 30 years and 100 years from now,” he said. “We’re seeing evidence of a terrible situation and a crisis around food. Now will it get better? We really don’t know. The indicators don’t seem to show that, but we haven’t opened up our economy yet.”

Despite the dire economic situation, two-thirds of Americans think it’s more important to continue stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 than reopen the economy, according to the Marketplace-Edison poll.

Hayes feels that way. As scared as she is about her financial situation, she’s more scared of the virus. She has paraseptal emphysema, even though she’s never smoked, which makes her so high risk that her pulmonologist has told her, effectively: stay inside until there is a vaccine. Her mom is high risk, too. 

“I’m worried that things are opening up too soon,” Hayes said. “I’m worried about myself because it means no work for me for awhile. And with my compromised immune system, I’m just so frightened to be around other people right now.” 

She’s also scared about her financial situation. She doesn’t have any savings at all. Her stimulus check is already gone. She put it toward rent — instead of other necessities like her medication — because she’s so afraid of becoming homeless. She and her mom are only able to eat because of the food bank, and because of her girlfriend, who brings them groceries, too, when she can. 

“I don’t sleep at night. That’s all I think about is, how are we going to keep surviving?” Hayes said. “Next month how am I going to be able to feed my dog? Next month am I going to pay for rent? Next month how am I going to pay for internet and phone? Next month how am I going to get my medication? How am I going to get my mom’s medication? It’s just really scary.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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