An investigation by the Guardian and the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at Northwestern University reveals the scale of America’s food insecurity crisis during Covid-19. Food insecurity has been at the highest level since annual records began in the mid-1990s. But, the pandemic did not create America’s hunger divide.
The week before Christmas, about 81 million Americans experienced food insecurity, meaning that one in four people in the so-called richest country in the world did not have reliable access to sufficient nutritious food needed for a healthy active life.
It found racial inequalities in access to adequate nutrition that threatens the long-term prospects of a generation of Black and brown children. Black families in the US have gone hungry at two to three times the rate of white families over the course of the pandemic.
“Food insecurity and poverty are absolutely racialized, so it’s horrifying, but not surprising, that Black and brown people have suffered disproportionately,” said Paul Taylor, executive director of FoodShare, a food justice organization.
Kyle Moore, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race and ethnicity, explained, “In periods of general economic growth, racial disparities in a wide range of poverty indicators have remained constant, suggesting a lack of political will over decades to tackle the root causes. Black and brown households have been hardest hit in every economic crisis, and taken the longest to recover.”
The report found:
1. Hunger – defined as not having enough to eat sometimes or often during the previous week – has been reported between 19% and 29% of Black households with children over the course of the pandemic. This compares with 7% to 14% of white American families.
2. Latino families have experienced the second highest rates of hunger, ranging from 16% to 25% nationally.
3, Racial disparities varied across states: Black families in Texas reported hunger at four times the rate of white families in some weeks, as did Latinos in New York.
4. As many as 43% of Black households with children have been food insecure during the course of the pandemic – the highest rate nationally for any community since records began. Despite a substantial fall last month, about one in three Black and Latino families are still food insecure.
5. Between 17% and 26% of white American families experienced food insecurity over the past year – illustrating the extent to which hardship spread into previously economically resilient communities.
6, Since Christmas, food insecurity has fallen by 35% among white families, compared to 26% of Black families, 21% of Asian Americans and 15% for Latinos.
The rate of hunger for families with children has been on average 61% (41% to 83%) higher than for adult-only households. This is particularly troubling as inadequate nutrition can damage children’s emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing, and the consequences can last a lifetime. Children who live in food insecure households are likely to get sick more often, recover from illness more slowly, and end up in the emergency room more frequently. Insufficient nutritious food impedes learning, and is linked to higher levels of asthma and depression.
“Covid has amplified existing disparities in education, food insecurity, unstable housing and health outcomes for a whole generation of children,” said Dr Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. “Children have borne the brunt of the lack of action to contain Covid-19 and the failure to prioritize schools.”
One in eight Americans has reduced food spending to pay for healthcare, with Black Americans twice as likely to be unable to afford quality healthcare compared to white Americans.
The US safety net for families with children has always been less generous and less funded compared with other rich countries.
“When the pandemic struck and so many jobs were lost, there were big holes in the safety net, especially for those who couldn’t access unemployment insurance because of their migration status or because they left work ‘voluntarily’ to care for children when schools closed,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, IPR director.
“The prevalence of hunger in the US is a political choice,” said Molly Anderson, professor of food studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. “Inequalities are down to political decisions.”
Aid was often delayed by bipartisanship or bureaucracy, it was mostly temporary, and far from universal, with some vulnerable communities such as undocumented migrants and cash-in-hand workers excluded almost entirely. Millions of struggling Americans lost federal unemployment benefits between August and January as lawmakers bickered over how much people deserved. Even if economic and food assistance reached struggling families none of the short term federal fixes came close to mitigating existing racial inequalities that had left Americans of color less able to weather unexpected economic storms.
In 2019, at the end of a period of historical economic expansion, unemployment for Black Americans was double that for white Americans, while the poverty rate for Black children was triple. Black and Latino workers are significantly more likely to earn the minimum wage or less than white workers. When the pandemic struck, the average Black family had $1,500 in emergency savings, whereas a typical white family had more than five times that amount. Only 10% of Latino families had enough savings to cover six months of expenses, compared with 36% of white families.
The past year has been particularly tough for children from low-income households, who are disproportionately Black, brown and Indigenous. Before the pandemic, more than 20 million children got free school lunches; just over half of those also received for free breakfast. “The biggest challenge has been getting food to hungry kids out of school,” said Regi Young, chief strategy officer at the Houston food bank.
" The truth is, we’re never going to foodbank our way out of hunger,” said Stuart Haniff, CEO of the RGV Food Bank.