The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity

by Monica Hake Senior Research Manager, Feeding America

As closures and social distancing orders meant to limit spread of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) sweep across the country, the impact is being felt in communities large and small. While changes taking place are disrupting the lives of nearly everyone in some way, food-insecure individuals – who numbered 37 million (11.5%) in 2018 – will face particular challenges, and the number of people who experience food insecurity is expected to grow. The Feeding America network of food banks is responding to the crisis as it unfolds, while already reporting increased demand for charitable food assistance.

Most low-wage jobs cannot be performed at home, so those workers are either experiencing lost wages or continuing to work, presumably risking their own health to the extent their roles require human interaction. One group that has been particularly affected are workers who have service occupations or work in the leisure and hospitality industry. As is, these workers experience above-average rates of food insecurity (16-17%). Now, with so many public-facing services closing indefinitely, these workers are facing particularly dire circumstances.

The impact can be seen by the staggering number of new unemployment claims for the week ending March 21 – 3.3 million, an increase of 3 million from the prior week and the highest number since October 1982 (695,000). More people will be affected, at least in the short run, the longer that closures continue.

Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study can be used to predict changes in food insecurity based on projected changes to unemployment and poverty. Below is an analysis outlining three potential scenarios, depending on the severity of changes to poverty and unemployment.

  • If unemployment increases by 1.1 percentage points and poverty increases by 1.5 percentage points, 3.3 million more people will experience food insecurity (Scenario A).
  • If unemployment increases by 4.5 percentage points and poverty increases by 2.6 percentage points, 9.9 million more people will experience food insecurity (Scenario B).
  • Finally, if unemployment increases by 7.6 percentage points and poverty increases by 4.8 percentage points, 17.1 million more people will experience food insecurity (Scenario C).

Scenarios A and B represent the same changes to poverty and unemployment that occurred during the Great Recession after one year and two years, respectively. The figure below displays the three scenarios alongside historic trends in the number of food insecure individuals.

Feeding America’s 200 member food banks are working in communities across the country in response to the COVID-19 crisis, adapting service models to minimize risk of transmission while helping those in need. Collectively, this network serves over 40 million people each year, many of whom will experience more severe levels of need in the coming months. At the same time, the sharp decline in the economy is leading to an increase in the number of individuals experiencing food insecurity. Food banks are already reporting increased demand, while facing operational challenges, including declines in volunteers and retail donations, and demand for charitable food assistance is expected to remain at elevated levels for the foreseeable future.

The post above is based upon a brief which can be found here.

This entry was originally published on March 31, 2020, and revised on 4/22/20 to correct for minor data inconsistencies.

Monica Hake is a Senior Research Manager at Feeding America and has been with the organization since October 2012. Monica holds a B.S. in international business and accounting from Marquette University and a M.S.W. from the University of Illinois – Chicago.