Chelsea Food Line

Food Insecurity Has Doubled During the Pandemic:

Data, Insights and Policy Solutions

October 6, 2020

Despite the fact that Massachusetts had a strong economy before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we still had not done nearly enough to leverage this aggregate wealth to ensure that all families had access to healthy, safe, affordable food—as of 2019, roughly 8 percent of adults in Massachusetts were food insecure. The State of Hunger in Massachusetts details many of the ways in which Black and Latinx families experienced these food-related challenges at disproportionately high rates even when the economy was stronger. To complement that report, this research brief provides new insights into how these longstanding food insecurity challenges have been exacerbated by the current pandemic. We pair this analysis with a discussion of actions policymakers could take to remove barriers and expand eligibility for food assistance to avoid even greater hardship and long-term harm to the people of this Commonwealth.

Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on the Economy and Food Security

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Massachusetts unemployment rate was at historically low levels and below the US average. However, not everyone benefited equally from this strong economy. The high cost of living meant that many families—disproportionately families of color—were struggling to find adequate housing and pay for food, health care, child care and other critical expenses, even as they held full-time jobs. The coronavirus crisis only served to intensify this situation. In March 2020, as a critical part of the public health strategy to stop the spread of COVID-19, state and local officials shut down large swaths of our economy that relied on face-to-face interactions. Sectors hardest hit include food service, retail, tourism and education. Between March and April, the state unemployment rate increased almost six-fold and eclipsed the national unemployment rate. By June, Massachusetts had the highest unemployment rate in the country. Despite some recent improvements, we still have the 6th highest unemployment rate in the country. Lessons from prior downturns tell us that vulnerable workers in lower-wage, public-facing jobs with fluctuating hours—like retail and food service—will have some of the slowest recovery, unless different policy choices are made.

With economic pain mounting, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020, which provided expanded unemployment assistance for many who lost jobs. The federal response helped stave off hardship for many families, but not for everyone. Some people never received any assistance because they did not qualify, including undocumented immigrants (who pay into the state unemployment system) and some recent college graduates. Moreover, the CARES Act’s Pandemic Unemployment Compensation provision, which automatically added $600 per week to all unemployment assistance recipients’ benefits, ended in July, causing a new spike in families struggling to afford food.

Massachusetts has traditionally had lower food insecurity than the national average and for the population overall this remains true during the crisis. However, the pandemic caused food insecurity to double, and this has affected our communities in different ways (see Definitions and Methodology for food insecurity definitions and estimation procedures). 

One example of the how different types of households experience food insecurity is that it tends to be higher among households with children. In Massachusetts, there is a five percentage point gap between households with children (19% of which are food insecure) and households without children (14% of which are food insecure). 

Even greater disparities emerge when we compare food insecurity across racial/ethnic groups, with Black and Latinx communities experiencing food insecurity at higher rates both during times of relative economic stability and crisis, due to persistent systemic racism and discrimination. Systemic racism, perpetuated by longstanding discriminatory institutions and public policies, has and continues to disempower people of color, especially Black and Latinx people, by restricting access to opportunity and resources like jobs, income, education, workplace protections and wealth. These, in turn, lead to greater vulnerability to economic shocks.

As demonstrated in The State of Hunger report and reinforced by this new analysis of trends during the pandemic, White and Asian communities have consistently had much lower rates of food insecurity than Black and Latinx populations. During the years preceding the pandemic, food insecurity for White and Asian households hovered around 5 percent. By contrast, food insecurity among Latinx households was 24 percent. For Black households, in the years leading up to the current crisis, food insecurity trended downward, before jumping in 2020. A robust evidence base, including research from Children’s HealthWatch and a new study from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, demonstrates that immigrants also disproportionately struggle with food insecurity, especially more recent immigrants and undocumented immigrants.

As food insecurity has risen, so has the share of households relying on free meals or groceries to keep food on the table. While 5.6 percent of respondents to the Household Pulse Survey in May said they or someone in their household received free meals or groceries within the past seven days, this figure increased to 7.5 percent and then to 8 percent in June and July, respectively.

Among households who received free meals or groceries, the most common source was school-based or children’s meal programs. This may have included Pandemic-Electronic Benefits Transfer, although these data do not explicitly identify the program (detailed below). From May through July, an average of 161,125 adult respondents lived in households that received free food through a school-based or children’s meal program each week. Food banks and food pantries were the second most common source of free food, followed by family or friends, or other community-based programs.

Applications for public assistance also rose dramatically early on in the crisis, with a 400 percent increase in weekly applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) and Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC). SNAP accounted for the largest share of increased applications, suggesting that the pandemic and the economic slowdown had an almost immediate effect on access to food and demand for food assistance. While the situation is dire, the uptick in SNAP applications reflects the proper functioning of the program—SNAP enrollment is intended to increase in a downturn. This may be further evidenced by the second surge in SNAP applications in early August, just as the additional weekly $600 in unemployment assistance provided for in the CARES Act expired. Not only does this demonstrate that SNAP is filling a critical gap, it is also indicative of just how tenuous the economic position of many Massachusetts families truly is.

SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that the federal government must provide food support to all families that are eligible (many immigrants are not currently eligible). In response to the crisis, the federal government expanded SNAP in a few key ways. Congress appropriated $16 billion for additional SNAP benefits, and allowed states to automatically provide the maximum monthly benefit to all families during the pandemic. A significant shortcoming of this maximum monthly benefit provision is that the families with the lowest incomes who already received the maximum benefit did not receive any additional help during these tough times. Congress also temporarily waived work requirements typically used to determine eligibility for SNAP. Lastly, in recognition of the fact that many parents need to provide more meals for children who are home from school (often with less employment income), the government created a new program called Pandemic EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer), which automatically provides extra money for food (no extra registration process required) to families with school-age children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school.  

Calls to food assistance hotlines have also risen during the pandemic. Project Bread, a Massachusetts statewide anti-hunger organization that connects people to reliable sources of food, while advocating for policies that make food more accessible so that no one goes hungry, coordinates a hotline for people struggling with food insecurity. The FoodSource Hotline assists callers with the SNAP information and the application process and connects them to other federal nutrition programs and community food resources. Data from the FoodSource Hotline show that calls from around the state increased more than five times comparing July and August 2019 to the same period in 2020.  The implementation of the state’s Pandemic EBT program prompted a large share of the new calls. There was also an increase in calls about SNAP (including SNAP pre-screens, application assistance and help with recertification). 

The FoodSource Hotline is just one example of many where local organizations are rising to the challenge and serving scores of families experiencing food insecurity in dire times. Massachusetts hunger relief organizations are both serving struggling communities and simultaneously pushing for a stronger, coordinated federal response to the hunger crisis. In the absence of more effective leadership from the government, vulnerable communities and families will continue to suffer.

Policy Directions for Greater Food Security and Equity

As in the State of Hunger report, this brief demonstrates that racial and ethnic inequities have led to adverse outcomes of the current crisis, as acutely evidenced by food insecurity rates. A savvy reader of both the State of Hunger report and this brief will recognize that many similar recommendations for systemic change and policy changes are represented in both publications. While the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it precipitated has certainly increased the prevalence of food insecurity, the fundamental sources of these inequities have not changed. Thus, knowing COVID-19 did not create but rather deepened inequity in food access, the solutions must also dive deeper than the pandemic, while simultaneously helping households today.

Many new programs initiated in response the COVID crisis—such as Pandemic EBT and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation—along with greater flexibilities in SNAP, WIC (the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), and school nutrition, have made a significant difference in mitigating food insecurity for households with children. While these innovations have been crucial, many came only after considerable pressure from families, advocates, lawmakers and other key stakeholders. The lack of urgency from federal administrators has caused these interventions to come too late, end too soon and generate confusion in the absence of sufficient guidance or support. Food-insecure families need these programs and flexibilities to be made permanent to ensure access to food and other supports throughout the duration of this current crisis and beyond. Here are four specific action areas for greater food security, well-being and racial equity:

1. Promote systemic change that is responsive to historical racism and structural inequity.

  • Resist harmful rhetoric and policies and instead promote a collective tone of respect for all our neighbors that confronts and takes the place of racist, xenophobic and bigoted rhetoric that perpetuates fear and exacerbates biases.
  • Promote data equity by collecting and disaggregating data and intentionally analyzing data with attention to such things as race/ethnicity, gender, age (especially for young children), (dis)ability and immigration status to better understand the disproportionate impact policies and practices have on particular people and communities. This must include federally-funded data, such as surveys conducted by the US Census Bureau, particularly the Current Population Survey and the Household Pulse Survey.
  • Mitigate bias in the operations of federal and state assistance programs through agency investments in equitable access to program benefits by examining existing practices for potential bias, investing in staff training and supports, and adopting anti-racism as a core operational principle at all levels. Additionally, employing and promoting trusted community-facing partners—like Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline and the WIC office embedded within the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center—as intermediaries is an essential practice to expand moving forward.

2. Strengthen federal nutrition programs.

  • Eliminate barriers to participation.
    • Expand categories of immigrants eligible for SNAP without the five-year waiting period (only some immigrants are eligible without a waiting period, like refugees and asylees).
    • Remove participation in SNAP or other assistance programs from “public charge” determinations—a forward-looking test to determine whether someone seeking entry to the US or legal permanent residency is likely to depend on government programs in the future.
    • Create a common application for safety-net programs to minimize the bureaucratic hurdles faced by clients and ensure fewer people fall through the cracks when accessing multiple assistance programs.
    • Improve communications to increase awareness about public programs among more demographic groups, including people with limited English proficiency.
    • Reduce burdensome requirements in applying, accessing or renewing benefits by reducing paperwork and minimizing other barriers such as face-to-face interviews and onerous verification processes. In response to COVID-19, waivers provided flexibilities in administering SNAP, WIC and other child nutrition programs. These waivers should be made permanent to provide equitable access to anti-hunger programs.
  • Expand eligibility to include more households facing food insecurity.
    • Expand access to universal free meals for all children from birth to age 18 to ensure all children receive the proper nutrition they need to thrive all year round through easy access in the locations where they learn and play. Make electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards a permanent part of child nutrition program delivery, providing such cards any time children are out of school including during times of crisis with Pandemic EBT and the summer with Summer EBT.
    • Provide universal access to WIC to increase access to breastfeeding support and healthy foods during the critical prenatal through early childhood period.
    • Increase income thresholds for eligibility for SNAP so that more food-insecure, working families can access benefits.
    • Make electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards a permanent part of child nutrition program delivery, providing such cards any time children are out of school including during times of crisis with Pandemic EBT and the summer with Summer EBT.
  • Increase benefit levels and flexibility in SNAP and reimbursement rates in child nutrition programs to support consistent access to a sufficient amount of healthy food.
    • Increase reimbursement rates for school, afterschool, summer and child care meals to allow nutrition quality to reflect evidence-based standards. 
    • Increase SNAP benefits and eligibility determination to reflect the real cost of a healthy diet and other expenses.

3. Address other co-existing hardships faced by food-insecure households, such as limited access to housing, child care, utilities, transportation, health care and employment.

  • Promote opportunities to increase educational attainment and workforce development including General Educational Development (GED)/High School Equivalency Test (HiSet), higher education and other investments in employment and training programs.
  • Increase minimum wage to reflect the actual cost of living and permanently tie to both a cost-of-living adjustment and inflation.
  • Extend stimulus and other direct payments to all taxpayers, including those who use a Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and ensure timely delivery of checks to households that have not filed a tax return.
  • Ensure that all workers experiencing job or income loss receive compensation through extension of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.
  • Increase benefits and eligibility for programs that provide cash assistance to low-income families through improvements to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Child Tax Credit (CTC) and Transition Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to help boost the spending or saving power of households.
  • Expand job-protected paid sick leave to cover all workers regardless of employer size to protect workers, their families and their communities.
  • Improve access to safe, affordable, stable homes for all families through investment in affordable housing, rental assistance, and eviction and displacement prevention resources.
  • Provide adequate funding for fuel assistance programs, specifically the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), to ensure all families are able to continue to heat their homes without making other basic need tradeoffs.
  • Provide universal access to high-quality, affordable child care for all families.
  • Implement faster and more inclusive policy tools, such as an automatic trigger, to help families recover quickly and completely from natural disasters and economic crises

4. Prioritize equity-based approaches in future research and data collection.

  • Critically examine assumptions, research questions and methodologies as well as the composition of research teams in order to actively deconstruct harmful practices within conventionally-designed research projects.
  • Prioritize the inclusion and incorporation of members of any community being studied in order to ensure that methodologies and findings reflect priorities of the community.

Definitions and Methodology:

The analysis contained in this research brief predominantly relies on two major data sources: The Current Population Survey (CPS) Food Security Supplement (FSS) for data before the pandemic, and the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey (HHPS) for data during the pandemic. The CPS FSS is the standard data that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses to produce official government statistics on food insecurity in the US. The USDA defines food insecurity as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food for all household members to lead active, healthy lives. The CPS FSS survey instrument includes 10 questions for all households and eight additional questions for households with children, which are collectively used to assign a food security status (on a four-tier scale) to each household. The top two tiers of food security (high food security and marginal food security) officially correspond to “food secure,” while the bottom two tiers of food security (low food security and very low food security) are used to designate a household as “food insecure.” Before the 10 or 18 questions used to designate a food security status are asked, there is a screener question about food sufficiency. There are four response options: always had enough of the types of food we wanted, always had enough but not always the types of food we wanted, sometimes did not have enough food, or often did not have enough food to eat. This question about food sufficiency is also included in the HHPS, but other food security questions are not included.

To obtain 2020 data about food insecurity, we extrapolate food insecurity rates in the HHPS using the relationship between food security and food sufficiency observed in the CPS FSS data prior to the crisis (specifically, in the pooled 2015-2019 CPS FSS data). Researchers at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR) developed this method, and details are available here. One critical assumption underlying the extrapolation of food security rates from the HHPS data is that the relationship between food sufficiency and food security before the COVID-19 pandemic is similar to their relationship during the crisis. By comparing results from this method with various data sources, including the National Health Interview Survey and the COVID Impact survey, Northwestern University researchers suggest the relationship between food security and food sufficiency does predict rates of food insecurity during the current crisis reasonably well.

There are a few important ways in which the data in this research brief are harmonized and transformed that lead our food insecurity measure to differ from the official CPS FSS measure of food insecurity including the unit of analysis and the recall period. As a result, food insecurity data in this brief representing years 2001-2019 is fundamentally different from food insecurity data for the year 2020 and comparisons across these time periods should be interpreted as our best approximation of food insecurity in 2020. The official USDA food insecurity metric evaluates food insecurity at the level of the household, while the HHPS data assesses food sufficiency for adults 18 years and older. To harmonize the data, we produce food insecurity estimates that correspond to the population 18 and older. (While all data used in this brief from the HHPS reflect the adult population, some measures assess characteristics in the households of the adult respondents and so we describe trends among households, although the data actually correspond to share of the adult population living in households with a certain characteristic (e.g., households with/without children, households receiving free meals/groceries). Some researchers reweight the HHPS data using pseudo-household weights to obtain household-level estimates, but this can introduce more imprecision to the analysis, particularly at the state level.) Also, the official food insecurity questions ask about food security over the course of a full year, while the food sufficiency question in the HHPS only ask about the prior seven days. This likely biases our estimates of food insecurity during the pandemic downward. The procedure we undertake likely does not compromise the validity of the results; however, it should be interpreted with caution. Other researchers have adapted these methods as well, and while there are many different measures of food access and security, new analyses consistently show a large negative shock to food security since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.