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

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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