When Lynne* decided to raise her five grandchildren on her own nearly four years ago, she had no illusions of what it would take to feed a growing family every day. But the 64-year-old made do with a steady paycheck as a kindergarten assistant at the local public school.
“I knew it was gonna be hard, but it felt so right for me,” Lynne tells SELF.
At their grandmother’s house near the Kentucky-Virginia border, the kids, ages 10 to 19, began thriving. They received good marks in school. The oldest graduated high school and enrolled in community college. The entire family scraped by on Lynne’s modest salary.
Then the pandemic hit. Kindergarten remained in session, which meant Lynne still had a job. But school for all five kids moved completely online.
“They had no idea how to do anything [on the computer],” says Lynne, adding that the electricity would frequently cut out in their rural county. “The internet was so aggravating. It would ‘wave,’ I’d call it. I had to come home after work and spend the rest of my evening trying to get them through the school stuff.”
Lynne elected to retire early, a decision that helped her participate in virtual learning with the younger children. But that choice also threw them into a fixed income, which led to a long bout of financial struggle—and food insecurity as a result of it.
At first, Lynne remained optimistic. She’d go pick up groceries at the food bank and “cook as soon as I hit the door,” relying on food-stretching techniques like adding canned pineapple to meat dishes and frying potatoes with Spam. But the food banks often lacked fresh, nutritious options for Lynne’s growing family. So she’d buy what she could at the grocery store, but that only added to the anxiety of potentially getting COVID-19—and further financial strain. In fact, according to the USDA Economic Research Service, food prices increased 3.5% in 2020, well above the 20-year average annual increase of 2%. The largest increase was in meat products, which tend to already be pricier than other categories.
“I was getting desperate because I had charged so much on my credit card,” Lynne says. “I was waiting for my income tax money. I got depressed.”
Unprecedented data during unprecedented times
Lynne’s family is one of many who have either dealt with food insecurity for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic or who have experienced an exacerbation of it. An estimated 45 million people, including 15 million children, were food insecure in 2020, according to Feeding America, a nationwide organization of food banks, meaning they lacked steady access to healthy, nutritious food. And despite promising signs of the pandemic easing due to vaccination availability and falling cases, the same report projects 2021 food insecurity rates to only decrease slightly: An estimated 42 million people, including 13 million children, may be food insecure this year.
For comparison, 35 million people and 5 million children were food insecure in 2019, before the pandemic hit, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“It’s unprecedented since we have been measuring it in the last 30 years,” Lauren Bauer, Ph.D., a policy analyst at the Brookings Institution who researches food insecurity through Brookings’s The Hamilton Project, tells SELF. In fact, in May 2020, Dr. Bauer documented new evidence from national surveys and prior USDA data that showed a steep increase in children going hungry just two months into the pandemic.
The rise was quick, but the fall isn’t going to be quite as sharp: “This is going to be a long and slow climb down,” says Dr. Bauer.
Food insecurity and the tough choices it brings with it
Food insecurity, which has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, has forced families into tough choices in order to survive.
“If [a family is] experiencing food insecurity, it’s not the only thing they are dealing with,” Zuani Villareal, communications director for Feeding America, tells SELF. “Food insecurity and hunger do not exist in a vacuum. People are simultaneously figuring out how to keep lights on, a roof over their head. Families are making those difficult choices.” This can often mean choosing between necessities, like food, medication, utilities, or transportation.
“A huge challenge for many of the people we interviewed was how to care for their kids without a safety net in place,” Sarah Bowen, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at North Carolina State University, tells SELF. Dr. Bowen has interviewed hundreds of American families facing food insecurity in five states: (Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and South Dakota) as part of the FIRST research study, or Food Insecurity: Responses, Solutions, and Transformation during COVID-19, funded by the National Science Foundation. “Parents avoid paying other bills, they will skip meals themselves. They’re trying to think about how they can at least feed their kids. More than one person talked about buying a freezer with the first stimulus check to store food.”
So far, Dr. Bowen says her research has shown that parents prioritize their children eating over anything else.
As a result, because of cost concerns, children in food insecure households are two to three times more likely to experience delayed or skipped health care than they would if they lived in a food secure household, a 2019 study in Pediatrics found. This sets the stage for some long-standing health ramifications of food insecurity: Research has shown that food insecurity increases the risk of chronic illness and mortality—which separate reports suggest can raise the winless choice of whether to buy food or pay for health care and medication.
A disproportionate burden on marginalized groups
Given the state of things, it would be easy to peg an increase in food insecurity as a simple result of a global pandemic. After all, according to a 2020 report in Advances in Nutrition, food insecurity and the COVID-19 pandemic go hand in hand, creating processes that feed off each other.
But that doesn’t tell the entire story. According to that research, this intertwining is especially true for vulnerable populations. The hunger crisis grows from cracked foundations: Food insecurity affects historically marginalized people at a much higher rate. According to Dr. Bowen, food insecurity “could happen to anyone, but certain groups are more at risk than others. There are huge racial disparities, which are also tied to disparities in economic resources.”
An April 2021 investigation conducted by the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and the Guardian found that between 19% and 29% of Black households in the U.S. with children experienced food insecurity over the course of the pandemic. Latino families in the U.S. experienced the second highest rates of hunger during COVID-19, ranging from 16% to 25%. For white American families, the data revealed 7% to 14% were hungry.
“We have not made it a commitment in this country to say that everyone deserves to have food,” Dr. Bowen says. “That is not part of our underlying moral and policy commitment.”
Systemic inequities, which existed before COVID-19 and which the pandemic only made worse, play a huge role in the differences in these numbers.
While the pandemic created a financial strain for many workers—causing an overall unemployment rate not seen since the 1930s—people of color, especially women, experienced the brunt of the economic hard fall. According to research from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 9.1% of Black workers and 7.3% of Latino workers were unemployed in May 2021, compared to 5.1% of white workers. One big reason is because of the types of jobs that were hit the hardest: The lowest-paying industries account for 30% of all U.S. jobs, but 54% of the jobs lost from February 2020 to May 2021, according to the report. That meant people holding jobs in food preparation and service and in other leisure and hospitality sectors—occupations which had higher rates of food insecurity even before the pandemic—were particularly affected. And women, especially women of color, are disproportionately represented in low-wage positions like these.
“When you peel back the onion layers, this gets into the question of labor, of wages,” Devita Davison, executive director of FoodLab Detroit, an organization of entrepreneurs in the food industry working to combat urban food insecurity, tells SELF. “Those workers that we have now deemed essential, they were those bodies on the front line. They were the most vulnerable bodies that didn’t have the option to work from home. You can’t be a bus driver and work from home, or a grocery store clerk, a nurse, a postman, a fast food worker. Those jobs are predominantly occupied by Black bodies in Detroit. And those bodies were in line for food.”
Add that COVID-19-induced economic pressure to preexisting causes of food insecurity for marginalized communities, and the hunger issue becomes even more pronounced. For instance, take “food deserts,” which refers to areas where there is a lack of places to buy healthy food, such as supermarkets. During the pandemic, limited access to public transportation, as well as product shortages and shorter hours at the retail stores themselves, made access to these food stores even more challenging.
“This isn’t a natural occurrence,” Davison says, about the implication of the term “food desert.” “Our neighborhoods are living under food apartheid. Even though the virus didn’t discriminate, we live in a country with policies that have been implemented in certain communities in which some people were more disproportionately impacted than others.”
The results of this can be staggering from a health perspective. According to a Brookings report published this March, Black residents of Detroit, for instance, represented 90% of deaths due to COVID-19 and 75% of diagnosed cases in that city. The study also found that “roughly 30 out of every 1,000 Black people living in Michigan can expect to die from COVID-19,” despite making up just 14% of the state’s population. This mirrors national CDC COVID-19 data last updated at the end of May: Black, Native American, and Hispanic people are more likely to die from COVID-19 than white non-Hispanic people (with increased rate ratios of 1.9, 2.4, and 2.3, respectively).
“More than your genetic code and the DNA that identifies your body, your zip code can determine if you don’t live a healthy lifestyle,” Davison says.
Aid at the federal and community levels
Aid to increase food access amid the unique challenges of the pandemic has come from both federal and grassroots levels and has played an enormous role in getting food to people’s plates. On the federal level, the U.S. government offered increased SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) as well as Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT)—which provides food benefits to eligible children during COVID-19-related school closures—as part of the the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020.
“The first and most consequential change that happened to SNAP at the beginning of the pandemic was to make the benefits much more generous to all eligible households, not just those with the lowest income,” says Dr. Bauer. From April through September of 2020, $8.4 billion in combined SNAP and P-EBT benefits were redeemed per month—an increase of 86.4% compared to the same period in 2019, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.
A huge benefit to many, these programs were not without some discrepancies. For example, the temporary emergency expansion of SNAP benefits in 2020 to make more households eligible actually impeded access for the lowest-income families, according to Dr. Bauer. Because they already received the maximum available benefit, they were not eligible for anything more—meaning they didn’t get any increased pandemic aid from them.
“What ended up happening is that the ‘better off’ SNAP-eligible families got a huge boost in benefits and the ‘worse off’ families saw no benefit increases,” says Dr. Bauer.
To supplement the federal aid, many members of marginalized communities have come up with their own imaginative solutions to help alleviate hunger on the local level. According to Dr. Bowen, the FIRST study has “found struggles and hardships, but also narratives of resilience, creativity, and togetherness,” she says. “Although federal food assistance programs were the most critical to families’ survival, food pantries and other private and nonprofit forms of support—often small-scale—were essential stopgaps when the federal programs were insufficient or unavailable.”
This was evident last summer in North Carolina, where La Semilla, a group of immigrant community organizers, distributed almost 800 boxes of fresh produce a week to mostly undocumented families living in mobile home parks throughout Durham and Raleigh. One undocumented mother of five lost her job at McDonald’s the same month her husband was detained by ICE.
“People like this call me to ask for money, but I don’t have it,” La Semilla organizer Ivan Almonte tells SELF. “But I can find food, and food is what the people won’t lack anymore.”
Organizers teamed up with local supermarkets to bring boxes of fresh food to COVID-19 testing sites and community vaccination events, providing a sharper lens into necessary changes around public health and mutual aid. For Almonte, it’s a subtle resistance against a system that does not serve all communities equally.
“It was important that others [outside the immigrant community] saw with their own eyes the reality of the situation: that people needed food and this was the place to give it out,” Almonte says.
Back in Kentucky, Lynne found relief in weekly boxes of food from CANE Kitchen, or Community Agriculture Nutritional Enterprises, in Letcher County. The food pantry uses funding from the USDA Summer Food Program to distribute food boxes to families and serve lunches to children every summer when school is out. During the pandemic, when in-person classes were closed, the free and reduced lunch program at school were also unavailable for children, making food pantries even more crucial then too. According to CANE board member Valerie Horn, the pantry served 700,000 food boxes in the summer of 2020. In comparison, the pantry served 700 total boxes in 2014, the program’s first year.
Through the USDA school lunch waiver extension program, CANE Kitchen received $2.2 million in 2020, compared to the $30,000 it received in 2019. It used the extra money to purchase local food from farmers, including mustard greens, sweet potatoes and fruits to cook and can, along with occasional fresh protein options, which it provided to those who needed it with no questions asked.
“At one place I was getting food, you had to bring your electric bill” for proof of residence, says Lynne. “At CANE Kitchen, you didn’t have to do anything except tell your name and how many children you had. It was real simple and they were nice. It was the nicest place I’ve ever gotten anything.”
Where does hunger go from here?
With widespread access to COVID-19 vaccines now available, the pandemic is finally showing some signs of easing in the United States, and many areas are now opened back up fully. That doesn’t mean the issue of hunger is necessarily letting up, though—or that we can ease up on the aid in place to help those experiencing it.
Villareal of Feeding America believes the implications of the pandemic on hunger are likely going to be long-standing.
“Many families will be starting in a deeper hole than they were at the beginning of the  recession,” Villareal tells SELF. “It will take longer to get them fully on their feet.”
But while there likely won’t be a swift rebound, there are positive signs that we might be moving in the right direction and looking at helping hunger as a long-term issue, not one that’s constrained only by the pandemic.
For one, in the spring of 2021, the Biden-Harris administration enhanced emergency programs through the American Rescue Plan Act. New efforts include a 15% increase in SNAP benefits, better access to online shopping with SNAP—which has become crucial during the pandemic— and increased support to individual states and U.S. territories. It also expanded the Child Tax Credit, increasing the amount to $3,600 for kids under six and $3,000 for those under 18, making it fully refundable, and providing it in periodic payments through 2021—all of which should give families more money in their pockets for the food that they need.
In April, the USDA also increased SNAP benefits for 25 million Americans. This eliminated the issue that thousands of lower-income families were experiencing in the pandemic—the ones who weren’t getting additional benefits because they were already at the max. Now, households that did not get at least $95 per month in increased benefits through emergency allotments during the pandemic are eligible to receive those additional benefits.
Building from emergency aid created during the pandemic, Dr. Bauer of the Brookings Institution sees federal assistance moving forward in the right direction—and providing some tangible benefits against hunger. For example, last summer, Dr. Bauer and her team found that P-EBT reduced food hardship and brought at least 2.7 to 3.9 million children out of hunger. With enhanced federal benefits and possibly more on the horizon, Dr. Bauer points out that the maximum benefit increase to SNAP has already had an immediate impact.
As for what this all looks like going forward? For one, COVID-19 drew attention to the widespread problems in our current food system. Looking ahead, Feeding America notes in its latest report that it took nearly a decade for food insecurity to reach manageable levels after the 2007 recession—and we can likely expect the same now. But the pandemic also strengthened partnerships among federal assistance programs, local community organizations, and private funders, which shows a collaborative approach can help tackle the issue from all angles.
“I certainly am feeling more hopeful now,” Dr. Bauer tells SELF. “Rates of food insecurity look like they are finally coming down, and I was not confident in saying that at any point last year.”
* Last name has been omitted for privacy.