As the spread of COVID-19 continues to rage along with rising death rates, many people are looking for the light at the end of the tunnel in the form of the vaccine. While the vaccine could be a critical defense against the spread of the virus, it is important to remember that for millions of Americans, even once the threat of the virus is diminished, the economic consequences of the past 10 months will remain.
Nationally, there have been reports showing pandemic-related rising rates of food insecurity—concerns about one's ability to access enough food to live a healthy, active lifestyle. People experiencing food insecurity may skip meals or go hungry because they lack the financial means to afford basic nutrition. Even before the pandemic, about 11 percent of Americans experienced food insecurity, with higher rates among African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and Alaska Natives. Since the pandemic began, those rates have soared nationally, and as recently reported by a study by the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, locally in the city of Pittsburgh, in the Hill District and Homewood neighborhoods.
Our team has been conducting a research study in these two neighborhoods since 2011 focused on neighborhood conditions and the impact on health and health behaviors, and we have been systematically tracking food insecurity in residents. For the past decade, rates of food insecurity among residents of the Hill District and Homewood have been nearly double that of the national population, but were steadily declining until 2018, when about 20 percent of residents surveyed reported food insecurity. From March 23 to May 22, when we fielded a survey of residents to assess the impact of COVID-19, rates of food insecurity in Hill District and Homewood residents nearly doubled, with 37 percent of residents reporting food insecurity in the early days of the pandemic.
These findings are from the first longitudinal study to examine changes in food insecurity over time and in response to COVID-19 in at-risk communities. The findings highlight striking disparities in food insecurity in African American neighborhoods, which have been hardest hit by the virus itself, as well as the negative economic consequences.
Our study also showed that despite such increases in food insecurity in residents, food bank use and participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps, remained relatively constant, suggesting that these critical safety nets could benefit from additional resources to meet the emerging needs of residents.
Lack of reported use could be due to difficulties with SNAP enrollment, problems accessing food banks in the early days of the pandemic, or feelings of stigma related to participating in such programs. Given the protracted nature of an economic downturn that will likely continue for months until widespread uptake of the vaccine is achieved, it may be critical for local and national policymakers to consider other strategies to bolster existing safety nets to protect against the threat of food insecurity, including more flexible enrollment and certification requirements for SNAP participation, and actively engaging community members in novel strategies to reach residents who are most vulnerable but may be reluctant to participate.
Proactive and aggressive policy actions could help reduce the profound inequities in food insecurity that have only been exacerbated by COVID-19. This also could help reduce the likelihood that such impacts will reverberate for years to come.
Wendy Troxel is a senior behavioral and social scientist and Tamara Dubowitz is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on February 7, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.