State of the Facts
As of June 7, 9.7% of adults lived in households where there was either sometimes or often not enough to eat in the past week.
Fewer Americans are short on adequate food than during the worst parts of the pandemic, according to recent survey data from the US Census Bureau. However, food scarcity has risen since falling to 8% in April.
People are historically most likely to be short on food in Southern states, though recent food scarcity rates were highest in New York at the beginning of June.
The pandemic didn’t create the food scarcity problem. In 2019, about one in 10 — or 13.7 million — American households were food insecure. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet, which is slightly different than the measure used by the Census Household Pulse survey.
The USDA distinguishes between “low” and “very low” food security. 6.4% of American households had low food security in 2019, whereas 4.1% of American households had very low food security in 2019. Very low food security households are more likely to feel hungry and not eat or skip meals. While almost all food insecure households reported being worried food would run out, less than 40% of low food security households reported cutting the size of a meal or skipping a meal and less than 10% reported being hungry but not eating. Over a third of very low food security households reported not eating for an entire day.
Families with children are slightly less likely to have reliable access to food than other households — 13.6% of households with children experienced food insecurity in 2019. This rate is even higher for families led by single mothers — 28.7% experienced food insecurity in 2019. Data shows adults typically shield children from serious reduction in food intake. In over half of food insecure families, only adults reported experiencing food insecurity.
Black and Hispanic families are more likely to lack consistent access to food than white families. While 19.1% of Black non-Hispanic families and 15.6% of Hispanic families were food insecure in 2019, 7.9% of white non-Hispanic families were.
Southern states such as Louisiana and Mississippi have the highest prevalence of food insecurity, whereas Northeastern states like New Hampshire and New Jersey have the lowest prevalence.
Prior to the pandemic, food insecurity rates had fallen from their Great Recession highs of nearly 15% of households to under 11% in 2019.
The recent Census Household Pulse Survey shows that food insecurity is related to several issues, including mental health. According to the survey, people who experienced recent food insufficiency are more likely to have felt anxious or depressed.
For example, 48% of people who reported that there was “often not enough to eat” in the past week also reported feeling “nervous, anxious, on edge” nearly every day, while overall 11% of people did. And 38% of those who reported that there was “often not enough to eat” also reported feeling “down, depressed, or hopeless” nearly every day, overall, 7% of people overall did.
While people who reported that they often not have enough to eat are more likely to be unemployed than not, 40% were employed, while 47% of those who reported there was “sometimes not enough to eat” were employed.
The government aids families experiencing food insecurity through programs ranging from breakfast and lunch for schoolchildren to nutrition programs for women, infants, and children. The largest program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. SNAP participation increased by 10% from 37 million to 41 million in April 2020, the first full month of pandemic restrictions. The average monthly benefit per household also increased by 31% from $277 to $364 due to a funding increase in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act signed into law by President Trump on March 18, 2020. While the number of people on SNAP has declined since its peak in June 2020, the number remains elevated.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 continued to expand nutrition assistance by extending the increase in SNAP benefits and other nutrition programs. President Biden’s proposed American Families Plan also includes investments in expanded nutrition assistance, focusing on increasing children's access to healthy meals.
To track the key metrics of America’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the COVID-19 Impact and Recovery Hub.
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