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Did food hardship increase during the pandemic?

The number of households experiencing uncertainty about secure access to food rose dramatically during the pandemic in both the United States and the UK. The crisis has exposed severe inequalities in ‘food hardship’ across race and class in both countries.

Aerial footage showing cars queuing for miles waiting for food donations in the United States in the spring of 2020 was one of the most searing early images of the economic damage from Covid-19. Parallels with the bread lines of the 1930s Great Depression were drawn, helping to secure the swift and massive legislative response to the pandemic. These images represented an accurate picture of the sharp increases in food insecurity that many families experienced.

What is food insecurity?

Food insecurity in advanced economies like the United States and the UK is generally defined as a situation where households are uncertain about having or acquiring enough food to meet their needs because of insufficient financial resources. This is distinct from the context of developing countries where food security is often thought of in terms of the productive and financial capacity of a nation to feed its people.

While the main determinant of food insecurity is low incomes, research suggests that the factors associated with it extend beyond poverty to include income volatility, low formal education or financial planning skills, physical and mental barriers, family structure, racial and ethnic minority status, and barriers to accessing sources of healthy and affordable food, among others (Gundersen et al, 2011; Loopstra et al, 2019).

For example, two households with the same level of income may have different food security outcomes if one of them lacks the financial know-how to plan effectively across pay periods. Or one may live in a ‘food desert’, in which it is necessary to travel greater distances to secure adequate nutritious foods, using up scarce resources on travel costs. Yet another may face disabilities that inhibit them from effectively acquiring and preparing food, and thus placing them at greater risk of food hardships.

On its own, food insecurity is problematic because it signals economic distress in a household. But it is also a concern because it is associated with numerous negative health outcomes at all ages.

One survey highlights that among children, food insecurity is associated with increased risks of some birth defects, anaemia, lower nutrient intakes, cognitive problems, aggression and anxiety, as well as worse oral health (Gundersen and Ziliak, 2015). For adults, food insecurity is linked to decreased nutrient intakes, increased rates of mental health problems and depression, increased rates of diabetes, and increased risk of congenital heart problems.

These negative health outcomes have elevated food insecurity as a leading nutrition-related healthcare issue.

How did food hardship change during the pandemic?

In the United States, there was a near tripling of adults experiencing food insufficiency with the onset of Covid-19, as shown in Figure 1. Households in the United States are considered food-insufficient if they report that they sometimes or often do not have enough food because of a lack of money.

The increase in the United States was much larger than that experienced after the global financial crisis of 2007-09. Among pensioners, the increase was more muted, and delayed, but by December 2020, it had doubled from the 2019 level, then falling back during the first quarter of 2021.

We do not have similar data for the UK over the same time period as comparable data on food insufficiency were only collected from July 2020 onwards. What’s more, the definition is different: in the UK, households are food-insufficient if they went hungry in the last week because they did not have money for food, or if they cut or skipped meals due to lack of money or access to food.

But as in the United States, prime-aged adults in the UK were much more likely to be food-insufficient than seniors over the course of the pandemic. The reported rates are much lower in the UK than in the United States and they have declined among prime-aged adults since July 2020.

Figure 1a: Trends in food insufficiency in the United States

Figure 1b: Trends in food insufficiency in the UK

Source: Current Population Survey, Household Pulse Survey and Understanding Society Survey
Note: Figure shows trends in food insufficiency in the United States annually from 2001 to 2019 in the Current Population Survey (CPS), which asks about the last 12 months, and weekly from April 2020 to March 2021 in the Household Pulse Survey (HPS), which asks about the last seven days. Trends in food insufficiency in the UK since July 2020 are based on the Understanding Society Covid-19 surveys, which ask about the last seven days.

A distinguishing feature of the pandemic is that it has laid bare many underlying inequalities, notably across racial groups and family structure. Ethnic minorities are more likely to work in the low-wage service and hospitality sectors of the economy – in shops, restaurants, hotels – which closed due to lockdowns and did not offer opportunities for working from home. Households with children were turned upside down when schools closed and many parents, especially mothers, left work to care for children and supervise home schooling.

In both the United States and the UK, food insufficiency was higher among non-whites, and in the former, the racial gap has widened dramatically during the pandemic, as shown in Figure 2. Food hardships are greater in US households without children, and grew worse during the crisis, relative to the UK. This is likely to reflect the weak social safety net for childless adults in the United States compared with the UK (Blundell et al, 2018).

Figure 2a: Food insufficiency in the United States by race and family structure

Figure 2a: Food insufficiency in the UK by race and family structure

Source: Current Population Survey, Household Pulse Survey and Understanding Society Survey
Note: Figure shows average food insufficiency in the United States (pre- and post-Covid-19) and the UK (post-Covid-19 only) across white and non-white adults and adults in households with and without children present, as well as overall.

One of the clearest indicators of food hardship is relief from the charitable food system. The share of adults aged 18-59 and 60 and older reporting assistance from a food bank or pantry increased during the Covid-19 period in both the United States and the UK, as shown in Figure 3. The share seeking relief increased steadily over the last year in the United States: from 2% of all adults to over 3%; and from 1.5% of pensioners to nearly 3%. In the UK, the share seeking assistance from a food bank also increased sharply in the first months of the pandemic, but fell back during the summer and autumn of 2020, only to increase modestly again during the most recent lockdown period.

Figure 3a: Food bank usage among adults in the United States

Figure 3b: Food bank usage among adults in the UK

Source: Household Pulse Survey and Understanding Society Survey
Note: Figure shows food bank usage in the United States in the last seven days based on the Household Pulse Survey and food bank usage in the UK in the last four weeks based on the Understanding Society Covid-19 surveys.

What policies were implemented to assist people in food hardship during the pandemic?

The US and UK governments took a number of actions to address the economic pain inflicted on households by the Covid-19 crisis. Most notably on the US side, policy-makers provided direct payments to households on three separate occasions, ranging in value from $2,400 to $5,600 for a family of four. They also increased eligibility for unemployment insurance to self-employed and gig economy workers who previously were not eligible, and they provided a federal top-up to those benefits. Two other initiatives aimed to address food insecurity by increasing direct food assistance.

The cornerstone of food assistance in the United States is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), sometimes called food stamps. SNAP provides a monthly allotment for the purchase of food that varies by household size, but the maximum is fixed nationally – set at $680 for a four-person household pre-Covid-19 – with a top-up for residents of the states of Alaska and Hawaii. Benefits must be spent on food purchased from qualified vendors for preparation and consumption in the home.

Eligibility is limited to households with low incomes and assets, but otherwise eligibility is near universal, unlike most other safety net programmes in the United States. SNAP is an ‘automatic stabiliser’, which means that it is designed to absorb increased enrolment automatically during economic downturns. The Covid-19 crisis was no exception and enrolment increased swiftly in 2020.

In 2019, about 60% of SNAP households received a benefit amount below the maximum because of their income. In response to the crisis, the US Congress raised those households’ benefits to the maximum, but otherwise did not change basic eligibility criteria. More recently, the maximum itself was increased by 15% through to the end of 2021.

The other significant policy change was to convert the school breakfast and lunch programmes into a voucher because schools were closed and unable to serve children regular meals. This provided much needed relief to low-income households with school-aged children, although the benefit amounts are quite low, amounting to $6.82 per remote school day.

The UK government also introduced unprecedented financial support, subsidising up to 80% of the wages of furloughed employees, with a similar scheme for the self-employed. Universal Credit, the main welfare benefit, was raised by £20, which represented an increase of 13% for the average recipient.

But unlike in the United States, the UK’s welfare system does not include food assistance programmes. The only notable exception is the provision of free school meals to low-income school children during term time, which is worth around £440 per child a year. These were converted into vouchers and lunch parcels when schools were closed during lockdowns.

In response to a campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford, the government extended the free school meals programme into the summer holidays in 2020, and subsequently increased funding for local authorities to support low-income families with children up to June 2021, including by offering food parcels or vouchers.

How good is the evidence?

The US Department of Agriculture measures food insecurity annually through household survey responses to a series of ten questions (18 if children are in the household) added to the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS). In the two decades leading up to the pandemic, about 12.4% of US households – 41 million people – were classified as food-insecure in an average year (Economic Research Service, US Department of Agriculture 2020).

Unfortunately, there is no comparable time series of food insecurity in the UK. The Office for National Statistics only recently began to collect data on food security in response to a report from the United Nations estimating that eight million people experienced food hardship in England in 2014 (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, Voices of the Hungry, 2016). The food security scale was added to the nationally representative Family Resources Survey for the 2019/20 financial year, which found that 8% of households were food-insecure (Department for Work and Pensions, 2021).

Neither the United States nor the UK has collected real-time information on the official food security status of households during the Covid-19 period. But starting in April 2020, the US Census Bureau has fielded a weekly web-based survey called the Household Pulse Survey (HPS), which collects limited information on food hardships that compares favourably to similar information collected in the CPS (Ziliak, 2021).

At the same time, Understanding Society, the leading household panel dataset in the UK, entered the field to collect information on a monthly (later bi-monthly) basis during the pandemic, and included questions on food insufficiency in some waves. We use these data resources to document the extent of food hardships before (United States only) and during the Covid-19 period.

Despite the substantial response of both the US and UK governments, the pandemic has exposed inequalities across race and class in both countries. It is therefore an opportune time to re-examine the adequacy of social safety net programmes to provide support to those in need.

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Who are experts on this question?

Authors: Xiaowei Xu and James P. Ziliak
Photo by Aaron Doucett on Unsplash
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