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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

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

Give me a snapshot of the labor market in the U.S.

U.S. job openings in February increased more than expected, according to the Labor Department. Also, the economy added over 900,000 jobs in March. For all of the good jobs news recently, there are still nearly 10 million people who are out of work, and more than 4 million of them have been unemployed for six months or longer. “So we still have a very long way to go until we get a full recovery,” said Elise Gould with the Economic Policy Institute. She said the industries that have the furthest to go are the ones you’d expect: “leisure and hospitality, accommodations, food services, restaurants” and the public sector, especially in education.

What do I need to know about tax season this year?

Glad you asked! We have a whole separate FAQ section on that. Some quick hits: The deadline has been extended from April 15 to May 17 for individuals. Also, millions of people received unemployment benefits in 2020 — up to $10,200 of which will now be tax-free for those with an adjusted gross income of less than $150,000. And, for those who filed before the American Rescue Plan passed, simply put, you do not need to file an amended return at the moment. Find answers to the rest of your questions here.

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