WASHINGTON — A national study on food security brought data few were expecting. Food insecurity overall did not rise last year despite all-time high unemployment and long lines at food banks. Yet Black and Hispanic households were more likely to experience food insecurity in 2020 compared to 2019.
Households are food insecure if at any point in 2020 they struggled to have all of their needs met because they didn’t have enough money for food.
“When the pandemic first hit, we definitely did see an increase in people coming to food banks, but especially people that (were) coming for the first time,” Seth Wolfmeyer with the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri said.
Despite those spikes, Wolfmeyer said his organization also saw points of low demand. He credits federal aid for keeping the percentage of households facing food insecurity at 11%. He also said the work of the food bank helped.
The benefits haven’t been equally effective for all communities. In Black households, the percentage of those facing hunger went up 3%, its highest point since 2016. Food insecurity for Hispanic households rose 1%.
“These are disparities that reflect long-standing discrimination in employment, in education and housing and that was just exacerbated and made all the more clear during COVID,” Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy with the Food Research and Action Center said.
“There’s a lot of families who are really struggling,” she said. “We should be ashamed of ourselves as a nation, that we allow this level of food insecurity, but also that you can see the discrimination writ large in these numbers.”
The data shows that 38 million Americans live in a household that struggles with hunger. Henchy said the study supports expanding programs that kept many families out of food insecurity during the pandemic.
Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC), had their benefits expanded and access made easier in response to the pandemic.
“We’ll want to keep the improvements that have been made in the programs during COVID-19 and make them permanent and really keep helping people,” Henchy said.
Expanding federal food programs during the pandemic was a bipartisan effort. This week on Capitol Hill, lawmakers discussed expanding benefits for federal programs. The proposals include things like free school meals.
“I think these are really the kinds of things that we’re hoping the bipartisan support for will continue,” Henchy said.