During the pandemic, food insecurity rose among Black and Hispanic households, single-parent households, and households with children. More people also enrolled in government programs combating food insecurity compared to pre-pandemic years.

Food insecurity is the limited or unknown availability of nutritional and safe foods for everyone in a household to meet their basic needs.

In 2020, 10.5% of households experienced food insecurity, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). About 4% of households experienced the most extreme form of food insecurity, meaning people ate less or skipped multiple meals due to a lack of access to food, an increase from 3.9% in 2019.

Who is most impacted by food insecurity?

Last year, 35% of households with incomes below the federal poverty line were food insecure. Children with unemployed parents have higher rates of food insecurity than children with employed parents. Seventeen percent of unemployed households were food insecure last year compared to 6% households with full-time employed parents.

For households with children, 7.6% had at least one food insecure child last year, an increase of 1.3 percentage points over 2019. About 16% of families with a child 6 years or younger were food insecure in 2020.

Food insecurity among children increased during the pandemic.

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Single-parent households also had higher rates of food insecurity than the national average. Single-mother households had a 27.7% rate of food insecurity. Single-father households had a rate of 16.3%.

Black families and Hispanic families also experienced higher rates of food insecurity in 2020. More than 21% of Black households and 17% of Hispanic households were food insecure last year. Food insecurity increased by 15% for Black households between 2019 and 2020. Hispanic households experienced a 6% increase of food insecurity between 2020 and 2019.

Black and Hispanic households experience higher rates of food insecurity compared to other families.

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People living in neighborhoods with limited public transportation and fewer grocery stores are at higher risk of experiencing food insecurity.

Communities that lack affordable and nutritious food are commonly known as food deserts according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Convenience stores are more common in food deserts than full-service grocery stores. These stores may have higher-priced and lower-quality foods than supermarkets or grocery stores. Predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods tend to have fewer full-service supermarkets than predominantly white, non-Hispanic neighborhoods, according to research from the USDA.

The share of the population living in food deserts varies by metro area.

Department of Agriculture
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How does the government combat food insecurity?

The government aids families experiencing food insecurity through programs ranging from breakfast and lunch for schoolchildren to nutrition programs for women, children, and infants. The largest program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps.

About 55% of food-insecure households participated in one or more of the three largest federal nutrition assistance programs in 2020: SNAP, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the National School Lunch Program.

WIC serves low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk. WIC provides nutritional food, information on healthy eating and referrals to health care. WIC provides services at hospitals, county health departments, schools, community centers, and more.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is another government child nutrition program. It’s a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential childcare facilities. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.

There are several other federal food assistance programs that target high-risk communities to prevent food insecurity and hunger including the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS)the Emergency Food Assistance Program, USDA National Hunger Clearinghousethe Seniors Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) and more.

An average of 42 million people participated in SNAP in 2021.

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In 2019, the USDA launched a two-year online purchasing pilot program that allowed New York SNAP participants to select and buy groceries from authorized online retailers, including Walmart, Safeway, ShopRite, Amazon. The online purchasing program currently operates in 47 states and in Washington, DC through grocery store chains and independent grocers.

How much does the government spend fighting food insecurity?

In 2020, the total cost of SNAP was about $74 billion, according to the USDA — the total 2019 cost was $55.6 billion. As of November 5, preliminary 2021 estimates show almost $99 billion spent on SNAP, with over 22 million households participating.

WIC served about 6.2 million people per month in 2020. Almost half of all infants born in the United States were served by the program. The federal program cost $4.9 billion in fiscal year 2020.

NSLP served an average of 22.6 million children each school day. About $10.4 billion was spent on the program last year. The number of children declined from 29.6 million in 2019 due to disruptions in the program caused by the COVID-19.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 helped fund USDA’s nutrition assistance programs, extending a 15% increase in SNAP benefits. The act provided an estimated $3.5 billion to households experiencing food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the USDA. The program ended in September 2021.

To track the key metrics of America’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, visit the COVID-19 Impact and Recovery Hub.