A drive-thru food pantry in Las Vegas. Nevada is projected to have one of the highest increases in food insecurity this year. (Bridget Bennett/AFP via Getty Images)

“Record levels” of food insecurity in the U.S. because of COVID-19

Samantha Fields May 22, 2020
A drive-thru food pantry in Las Vegas. Nevada is projected to have one of the highest increases in food insecurity this year. (Bridget Bennett/AFP via Getty Images)

At some point this year, 54 million Americans — including one in four children — may not know where their next meal is coming from

Food insecurity is rising in every part of the United States, and will continue to throughout 2020, according to new projections out this week from Feeding America

“These are record levels,” said Emily Engelhard, managing director of research at Feeding America, which has a nationwide network of food banks. “We have not seen food insecurity reach these levels for the length of time that food insecurity has been measured.”

Some of the biggest increases are coming in states that rely heavily on tourism, like Nevada and Hawaii, which have been hit hard by pandemic-related job-losses. And the need is only continuing to grow in the states that had the highest rates of food insecurity before the pandemic, including Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana. 

States with the highest projected change in food insecurity, according to Feeding America’s report, The Impact of the Coronavirus on Local Food Security. (Courtesy Feeding America)

“Sometimes we have a tendency to feel like the issue of food insecurity is not our issue, and that it’s far away. It’s in some other neighborhood, in some other community,” Engelhard said. “But this really shows that it’s in every single community.”

More than 37 million people were already considered food insecure before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. and devastated the economy — and that was the lowest it had been since before the Great Recession. 

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, food banks across the country have been seeing a surge in demand, something they often measure in pounds. One meal is roughly 1.2 pounds, according to Catherine D’Amato, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank. 

Before the pandemic, the Greater Boston Food Bank was distributing between 4 and 5 million pounds of food a month, on average.

In March, it distributed 8 million pounds. 

In April, 9.5 million pounds. 

In May, it’s on track to distribute more than 10 million pounds. 

“That’s a very clear indicator that something is different,” D’Amato said. “It’s historic, we’ve never seen anything like this. So there’s no roadmap for us, and we’re kind of building it.”

Projected rates of food insecurity for 2020 by state, according to Feeding America’s report, The Impact of the Coronavirus on Local Food Security. (Courtesy Feeding America)

Around 40% of the increase is coming from people who had never been to a food bank before, according to Feeding America — people who have newly lost a job, or are supporting sick family members. 

With unemployment continuing to rise every week — nearly 39 million people have applied for benefits for the first time just in the last two months — food banks know that need is only going to continue to increase, and is likely to remain high for a long time.

“Are we going to be in this for five years? Are we going to be in this for three years?” D’Amato said. “We know we’re going to be in this for multiple years simply based on these historic unemployment numbers.”

So far, there has been a surge in donations, both from individuals and corporations, that is helping food banks meet the increase in demand. 

But, Engelhard said, “my concern is that this will become a new normal, and that the sort of energy and community support that we’re seeing won’t sustain, even as people continue to be in dire need of support.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the latest on the extra COVID-19 unemployment benefits?

As of now, those $600-a-week payments will stop at the end of July. For many, unemployment payments have been a lifeline, but one that is about to end, if nothing changes. The debate over whether or not to extend these benefits continues among lawmakers.

With a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases, are restaurants and bars shutting back down?

The latest jobs report shows that 4.8 million Americans went back to work in June. More than 30% of those job gains were from bars and restaurants. But those industries are in trouble again. For example, because of the steep rise in COVID-19 cases in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, increased restrictions on restaurant capacities and closed bars. It’s created a logistical nightmare.

Which businesses got Paycheck Protection Program loans?

The numbers are in — well, at least in part. The federal government has released the names of companies that received loans of $150,000 or more through the Paycheck Protection Program.

Some of the companies people are surprised got loans include Kanye West’s fashion line, Yeezy, TGI Fridays and P.F. Chang’s. The companies you might not recognize, particularly some smaller businesses, were able to hire back staff or partially reopen thanks to the loans.

You can find answers to more questions on unemployment benefits and COVID-19 here.

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