Decreasing Food Insecurity Over Last Decade: Facing new challenges due to COVID-19

by Scott Richter and Dr. Patrick Jones

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on many new challenges, with no place on the globe unaffected. Getting the right treatment to patients, not to mention case tracking, not to mention developing a vaccine have been huge challenges. Making sure everyone has the basic requirements of food, shelter, and clothing has been challenged too.

The United Nations World Food Programme recently doubled their estimates of acutely food insecure people in the world, from 135 million to 265 million globally. The earlier estimate came from a report before the pandemic listing “…conflict, the effects of climate change, and economic crises.” as the primary causes.

The UNICEF definition of acute food insecurity is “when a person’s inability to consume adequate food puts their lives or livelihoods in immediate danger.” It is more severe than the food insecurity faced in the U.S.

A recent Brookings report using the COVID Impact Survey  showing  initial impacts of COVID-19 has concluded the pandemic has greatly increased food insecurity in the U.S. The Brookings report shows food insecurity during 2018 the U.S. was at or near 20-year lows. By April 2020, food insecurity for mothers with children 0-12 and households with children 0-17 more than doubled from the 2018 estimates. Food insecurity for all households nearly doubled while mothers with children 0-12 who were not eating enough because they could not afford it more than tripled.

It seems longer than just 5-months ago, but by April of this year, many places across the U.S. had already entered quarantine. In-class instruction for public schools had been suspended, millions if not tens of millions of jobs were lost, and people who still had jobs were either working from home or were considered essential often in workplaces such as healthcare, food processing, and agriculture with an increased risk of contracting coronavirus. As we know now, April 2020 was just the beginning of a long pandemic and the negative impact on the food insecure population could already be more negatively impacted than the Brookings report indicated in April. 

Feeding America defines hunger as “a personal, physical sensation of discomfort” and food insecurity as “a lack of available financial resources for food”.

Feeding America uses the U.S. Department of Agriculture two-part definition of food insecurity:

  • Low food security “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.”
  • Very low food security “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”

While it is too early to know what the current shares of Spokane County food insecurity look like, Feeding America recently released the 2014-2018 food insecurity estimates.

Looking at the Share of Population with Food Insecurity indicator on Spokane Trends, sourced by Feeding America, shows both the overall and youth populations in Spokane County were the lowest in the series starting with the 2005-2009 time period. Further, the overall and youth populations in Washington State and U.S. were also the lowest in the series during the 2014-2018 time frame.

More specifically, during the 2014-2018 time period, the share of the total population who experienced food insecurity during the past year in:

  • Spokane County was 13.0%, and the youth population was 19.5%, decreasing from 15.5% and    25.2%, respectively, since the 2005-2009 time period.
  • Washington State was 10.7%, and the youth population was 14.7%, decreasing from 14.8% and    24.7%, respectively, since the 2005-2009 time period.        
  • The U.S. was 11.5%, and the youth population was 15.2%, decreasing from 16.6% and 23.2%, respectively, since the 2005-2009 time period. 

So while the share of the county population facing food insecurity has thankfully declined over the past decade, it remains higher than the benchmarks. Further, between the 2010-2014 and the 2011-2015 time periods, the state and U.S. benchmarks either continued or began a downward trend. While also showing decreasing trendlines, the shares of both the overall and youth populations of Spokane County have not experienced decreases at the same pace.

Each year, Feeding America calculates shares of the overall and youth populations struggling with food insecurity “to improve our understanding of food insecurity and food costs at the local level.” This year, in response to the pandemic, Feeding America created projections for 2020 showing what we are likely dealing with in the here-and-now.

However, these are unprecedented times. While more people are faced with food insecurity, community organizations are likely to face these new challenges with diminished resources to meet an increased demand.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information and the National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health are warning “The COVID-19 pandemic complicates or even nullifies the complex strategies that families facing food insecurity use to feed themselves.”