Over the last seven months, the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically affected millions of Americans' ability to afford the basics, including food.
About 10% of Americans, 22.3 million, reported they sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat within the past week, according to the latest Household Pulse Survey fielded between August 19 and 31, 2020 and released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The current rate of food insecurity, which is when you don't have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable food, is several times higher than reported last year. Only about 3.7% of Americans reported they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat throughout 2019, according to a new USDA report also released Wednesday.
While the comparison is not quite "apples to apples" because the USDA is asking about the last year and the Pulse Survey is asking about the past seven days, it is worth noting the increase in overall food insecurity, says Joseph Llobrera, director of research for the food assistance team at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"The comparison is actually conservative," Llobrera says. "If the Pulse [survey] was to ask about the last six months, or since the start of the pandemic, it would probably pick up quite a bit."
Overall, American families are particularly affected. About 14% of adults living with children reported that the kids in their household sometimes or often didn't eat enough over the past week because the family couldn't afford it. That's particularly concerning given that parents and guardians generally try to protect children from going hungry, usually cutting down their own portions first. When households report that children aren't getting enough to eat, it indicates that the food insecurity is more pronounced, according to CBPP researchers.
In fact, 24% of parents reported being worried in July that if their children did not return to school full-time in the fall, they would not be able to provide enough food for them to eat at home, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's July health tracking poll of over 1,100 U.S. adults.
"People are struggling out there," Llobrera says. "These are historic levels of hardship."
Wednesday's release of the Pulse survey is the first since the Census Bureau paused its weekly polling efforts in July. For the week ending July 21, the survey found that about 12% of adults were sometimes or often going without enough food.
But the latest data is not comparable to the survey responses that were generated from April and continued through late July, Llobrera says. It's not accurate to interpret the latest updates as actual changes in households' circumstances, but instead should be attributed to changes to the survey itself.
That's because the Census Bureau made updates to the survey, including changing the length and the wording of questions. The changes led to a higher number of respondents declining to answer various questions, particularly questions asked later in the survey.
What to do if you're facing food insecurity
Despite the changes to the survey, it's clear that there's been an "explosion" in the number of households who are having difficulty affording food since the pandemic started, says Brynne Keith-Jennings, a senior CBPP research analyst. That means many Americans may turn to food assistance programs and organizations like food pantries.
If you're facing food insecurity, here are some resources to consider:
- Apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP, through your state agency. Eligibility requirements vary by state, but typically your household has to be at or below 130% of the poverty line. For a family of three, that's a gross income of about $28,200 a year.
- Young families may qualify for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, popularly known as WIC. To qualify, you generally need to have been deemed at "nutritional risk" and have a gross household income at or below 185% of the federal poverty level. That's just over $37,000 annually for a family of three.
- Food pantries, such as those supported by Feeding America, may be able to help. The organization, which supplies 4.3 billion meals each year through food pantries, has a helpful lookup tool that shows their network of 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries and meal programs around the country. In many cases, you do not have to be eligible for SNAP in order to qualify for pantry services.
- The Homeless Shelter Directory, FoodPantries.org and FreeFood.org also have addresses, websites and contact information of soup kitchens, food pantries and food banks by city and state.
- Little Free Pantries, a grassroots mini pantry movement where neighbors stock pantry items for those in need to take, may be another option.
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