How many have gone hungry during the pandemic?
Experts disagree about the extent of food insecurity and the success of welfare expansions
On an average Saturday morning twice a month, 30 to 50 families used to show up at the food pantry at Eternal Faith Baptist Church in Manor, Texas. They browsed the fellowship hall or picked up prepacked bags filled with beans, rice, pasta, cereal, and cans of meats, fruits, and vegetables. In the spring of 2020, that number jumped to 80 or 100, said Sheila Matthews, who leads the church’s food pantry ministry. It switched to a drive-thru format, and Matthews said that at first Eternal Faith was the only area church with a food pantry. Clients told stories of losing jobs or having unemployed relatives move in with them as the pandemic progressed.
“We’ve been doing this for so long and have the same clients come through … some of these families were new,” Matthews said. Some “came through saying they didn’t know what to do because they’d never had to go through a food bank before.”
Matthews’ experience matches stories from food distributors nationwide. As many Americans lost jobs last year, poverty researchers reported increasing food insecurity. The government and local communities stepped up food support in response, but some scholars say the reports misrepresent the situation and are leading to misguided solutions.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food security as always having enough food for an “active, healthy life.” Measurements of food insecurity range from anxiety about having enough to eat to lacking food. In 2019, the USDA estimated 10.5 percent of American households experienced some level of food insecurity at some point. That number represented progress from 2018’s 11 percent and the 2011 peak of nearly 15 percent. Only 4 percent of households in 2019 experienced “very low food security”—actually skipping meals because they did not have enough food.
In April 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau began the Household Pulse Survey to measure Americans’ well-being during the pandemic. In July, Lauren Bauer at the Brookings Institution analyzed the initial results and wrote that “food insecurity has remained persistently elevated at record levels.” Around the same time, the Urban Institute reported more than 1 in 6 adults were food insecure two months into the COVID-19-induced recession. Meanwhile, food banks saw rising demand: From February to March, the Central Texas Food Bank had a 200 percent increase in new clients. In June, the Community Food Bank of New Jersey averaged 50 percent more clients than before the pandemic and spent about $1 million above its budget each month on food and temporary staff.
Politicians and advocates seized on those findings to demand the government step up its response. In mid-June, 2,500 organizations wrote a letter to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., asking that the next pandemic relief bill increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps. The government had already boosted food welfare programs in the spring by streamlining the application process for SNAP and waiving the requirement that existing recipients recertify. Congress also authorized the USDA to give all SNAP households maximum benefits and waive work or job-search requirements. The CARES Act provided money for states to reimburse households with children eligible for the school lunch program, and schools continued making meals for families to pick up. Congress’ December omnibus spending bill increased SNAP benefits by 15 percent.
Despite the reported problems with hunger, American Enterprise Institute scholar Angela Rachidi said the government safety net expansions largely worked. “Reported trends in food insecurity … contradict other data that show reductions in poverty among U.S. households since the start of the pandemic and increases in income … because of the economic relief efforts Congress authorized,” she wrote in August.
Food insecurity can be subjective because it measures people’s food preferences and anxiety, she noted, arguing that food insufficiency has a more straightforward definition: “A household did not have enough to eat, sometimes or often, in the last seven days.”
As various government program expansions expired throughout the year, food insufficiency numbers remained relatively stable, hovering at about 11 percent. Rachidi found most food-insufficient households did not participate in the government’s safety net programs, and she recommended the government focus on enrolling those families rather than boosting benefits. “Increasing SNAP won’t address food insecurity very much and more likely fulfills a long-held goal among Democrats to increase SNAP benefits,” she said in an email.
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