"Food insecurity" across the United States doesn't refer to the chronic food scarcity and undernourishment, which afflicts more than 800 million people in poor countries, but rather to the disruption of people's typical food-consumption patterns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distinguishes between what it calls low food security ("reduced quality, variability, or desirability of diet") and the very low version of the same ("multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake").
Just before the coronavirus struck, 35 million Americans, 11 million of them children, experienced food insecurity. This year, those numbers are projected to reach 54 million and 18 million respectively.
In 2018, 4% of American adults reported that at least some members of their family did not have enough to eat; by July 2020, that figure had hit 11%.
That food insecurity has "skyrocketed" shouldn't come as a surprise. The bigger the hit people took from the Covid-19 recession, the more likely they were to experience food insecurity,
Millions of people have lost their jobs. Some have seen their earnings diminished because of furloughs, wage cuts, freezes, or reduced working hours. Others have looked for jobs in vain and finally given up (but aren't included in official unemployment statistics). Millions of adults have children who no longer receive those free or subsidized lunches because of the switch, in whole or part, to online teaching. Worse yet, as pandemic-induced firings, layoffs, and wage cuts have reduced incomes, and so consumer purchasing power, food prices, especially for meat, fish, and eggs, have only risen. Such costs have increased for other reasons as well. The pandemic has disrupted supply networks, national and international.
Americans high on the income ladder can absorb such extra costs easily enough and, in any case, spend a substantially smaller portion of their income on groceries. According to the USDA, adults with incomes in the top fifth of society spent 8% of their income on food last year; for the bottom fifth, it was 36%. The first group also obviously has a lot more money available to stock up on food than that bottom fifth, so many of whom have also become jobless or seen their paychecks diminish since the pandemic started. In March, for example, 39% of those making less than $40,000 had already lost their jobs or had their paychecks reduced, but only 13% of those who earned $100,000 or more, and that gap continued into the fall.
In coronavirus-stricken America, only 1% of adults with an annual income exceeding $100,000 surveyed by the Census Bureau this summer responded that, during the preceding week, their household "sometimes or often did not have enough to eat." Compare that to 16% of those making $25,000-$35,000 and 28% of those earning less than $25,000.
A USDA report classified 19% of Black households and 16% of Hispanic households as food insecure in 2019, compared to 8% of their white counterparts. By this summer, food insecurity had increased significantly across the board, afflicting 36% of Black, 32% of Hispanic, and 18% of white households. While the pandemic has certainly made matters worse, African Americans had the highest rate among those three groups even before it started. This was especially true of counties -- the U.S. has more than 3,000 of them -- in which they were in the majority. In 2016, those particular counties accounted for a mere 3% of the national total, but 96% of them had "high food insecurity," as the Department of Agriculture defines it, as well as a poverty rate more than twice the national average (12.7% that year).
Native Americans have had the worst of it, however, since many of their families lack access to running water and plumbing (58 per 1,000 households compared to three per 1,000 for whites). Nearly 75% of Native Americans must travel more than a mile to reach a supermarket, compared to 40% of the population as a whole, and the disruption of supply chains has only diminished their food security further relative to other ethnic communities.
In Queens, for instance, one food bank pantry regularly faces a demand so steep that lines can extend for eight blocks. Try to imagine what the waiting time must be. 1.5 million people in the city, unable to buy the groceries they need, rely on food pantries, and New York is anything but unusual. Food insecurity during the pandemic has varied by location as well. Ten states (and the District of Columbia) had the highest rates, ranging from Mississippi (33.5%), which stood atop this group, to Alabama (27%), which had the lowest. In between, in descending order, were Washington, D.C., Nevada, Louisiana, New York, New Mexico, Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
Feeding America, a non-profit organization that supports 200 food storage centers and 60,000 pantries nationwide, reports that the country's food banks have provided the equivalent of more than 4.2 billion meals since March. Food banks, facing a tsunami of demand, have struggled to stay stocked amid rising prices, shortages, reduced donations from big chain supermarkets, and disrupted supply chains. It's also become even harder for them to raise the money they need to operate. Not a few have buckled under the strain and many have been forced to shut down.