The number of Americans who can’t get enough food is rising from already troubling levels during the COVID-19 pandemic. About 1 in 10 Americans said in November 2020 that their household sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the previous week, the U.S. Census Bureau found.
Food insecurity – what happens when someone doesn’t have enough money for food – is just as bad in Los Angeles County, home to one-quarter of California residents. These roughly 10 million people live primarily in urban areas like the cities of Los Angeles, Malibu, Hollywood and Compton.
The Los Angeles crisis surged the most in April, when 26% of all households – and 39% of low-income households – experienced food insecurity that month. By October, the situation had improved somewhat, with 11% of the county’s households and 17% of low-income households remaining food-insecure. The majority of these people are women, Latino, low-income and parents.
Even the lower rate in October was more than triple the norm before the pandemic: Some 5% of low-income households were likely to have experienced food insecurity in any given month of 2018, the most recent comparable data available.
Tracking food insecurity in Los Angeles County
Food insecurity has long been a challenge for Angelenos, especially people with low incomes, people of color and those living in neighborhoods that don’t have enough affordable healthy food.
So when the coronavirus pandemic began, I teamed up with other experts formed by USC Dornsife’s Public Exchange to track how this emergency would affect food security in this region. Our team includes scholars of public health, psychology, health policy, geography and data science. We met every week with the local government representatives leading efforts to address this issue and coordinated with several nonprofits that connect people with food and financial assistance.
Since April, we have surveyed 1,800 adults, who are representative of households in the county, to track their experiences.
We also partnered with Yelp, the local search and review site, which shared information about restaurants and grocery stores across the county, including which ones have closed or stayed open or added delivery services. This data helps us understand how easy or hard it is for people to get food in their own neighborhoods.
The causes of food insecurity
Food insecurity is most often brought on by poverty, job loss or a health crisis. It’s no surprise that it would spike during a pandemic that’s caused so much unemployment and illness.
We’ve found that the biggest risk factors for food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic were having a low household income, being unemployed and being a young adult. People between the ages of 18 and 30 were most at risk, while those 65 or older were the least.
We also determined that being a single parent increased the risk of experiencing food insecurity.
On top of economic challenges, the pandemic is disrupting farming and the production and distribution of food. Grocery prices have gone up at least 3.4% since the start of 2020, far exceeding the 2% annual average growth of grocery prices over the past two decades.
At times, restaurants, supermarkets and smaller food stores have curtailed their hours. Our community partners are concerned that it will be hard for independent restaurants and groceries to keep their doors open.
Not having enough to eat is a major public health concern, not only because it causes hunger and distress, but also because it’s linked to poor nutrition and unstable diet patterns.
For example, a family without enough money for food at the end of the month, when bills are due, may eat very little. That family might, when they have money, then stock up on cheaper foods that have lots of calories and will last a long time. Those shopping trips are unlikely to include many expensive fruits and vegetables.
This pattern helps explain why food insecurity increases risks for diet-related diseases, like diabetes and heart disease.
Weaker ties make it worse
The coronavirus pandemic has made it clearer than ever that the people in your life and where you live affect your health.
Stay-at-home orders are designed to limit the contact we have with family, friends and other acquaintances. These restrictions also make it harder for people to help and support one another during a crisis.
We found that people with fewer relatives and friends were more likely to experience food insecurity at the start of the pandemic.
And we’re hearing that accessing food has been even harder than usual for people who rely on public transportation, with them having the extra risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.
The pandemic has also made it hard to connect with organizations that provide support. With the closure of many school buildings and community centers in Los Angeles County, local government staff and organizations have been working hard so that low-income kids and other residents can still get free or low-cost meals.
On top of all of this, the pandemic is causing huge challenges for emergency food donation programs. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank has more than doubled the amount of food it gives away during the pandemic. Food pantries can’t always get enough food or volunteers to serve all of the people who show up.
On a recent call with a food pantry, I heard about how they went from serving 300 families a week before the pandemic to 4,000 a week now – and how hard it’s been to get enough food to distribute to everyone who lines up.
These emergency food programs just weren’t designed to cope with a crisis at such a big scale, or one that lasts for so long.
To better understand the landscape of food assistance in Los Angeles, we are getting comprehensive information about these programs through Aunt Bertha, a nationwide social care search-and-referral platform where people can search for many types of food assistance, from government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to local food pantries and community gardens.
More Angelenos are getting SNAP benefits
We’re seeing evidence that food aid and government benefits may make a big difference. For example, the number of Los Angeles households getting SNAP benefits rose by 20%, from 686,378 in March to 822,356 in July. Some of the people we’re tracking managed to become food-secure after getting government food and financial help.
More Angelenos have also been getting other forms of governmental financial assistance, such as unemployment benefits, and obtaining aid from food pantries and the like.
Nationally, there has also been an uptick in the use of community and government assistance programs and signs that government aid is helping families become food-secure.
However, many people still do not have enough food, including some who obtain food and financial help.
Our findings also point to other opportunities that governments and community organizations have to help people get the food they need. For example, they can help small grocers in neighborhoods that don’t have many food stores stay open and provide subsidized food delivery to low-income people without cars.
We hope our study will help Los Angeles and other cities find opportunities to help everyone get enough to eat during the pandemic.
Kayla de la Haye’s research for this project by the University of Southern California (USC) Dornsife’s Public Exchange was supported by the USC Dornsife Emergency Fund and by the Keck School of Medicine of USC COVID-19 Research Fund through a generous gift from the W. M. Keck Foundation. The work was done in coordination with the Los Angeles County Emergency Food Security Branch.