The level of food-insecure households has risen significantly in the wake of COVID-19, according to speakers at a recent panel of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Presenting an overview of food security levels in Texas and nationwide was Patrick J. Stover, Ph.D., vice chancellor for Texas A&M AgriLife, dean of the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research.
Impacts rippled through the food system
Stover referenced a recent report from the Agricultural and Food Policy Center, AFPC, at Texas A&M, which detailed the initial impacts of COVID-19 on food systems.
Typically, U.S. consumers spend about half their food expenditures for meals at home. So, when schools and restaurants shut down, a dramatic shift in food purchasing occurred. That shift disrupted supply chains from the farm to the grocery store. The effects were particularly troublesome for producers of livestock, fruits and vegetables, and dairy products.
“What we experienced at the end of our Texas season this spring, was that farmers had 60% of their distribution channels completely turned off overnight,” said Dante Galeazzi, president and CEO, Texas International Produce Association, in a video Stover shared.
Overall, the disruptions caused more people to experience hunger and malnutrition.
“As our food system was experiencing massive disruption, the economic collapse caused by COVID-19 led to massive job losses, leaving millions without income and driving up rates of food insecurity throughout the U.S.,” Stover said.
Food security dropped nationwide
Prior to COVID-19, levels of hunger and inadequate food were improving in the U.S., Stover said. A common metric used to measure these levels is food insecurity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.
To put the current levels of food insecurity in context, Stover shared USDA data trends from recent decades. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the national average for food insecurity levels peaked at roughly 15% in 2011. That level gradually declined to a 20-year low of 10.5% in 2019.
“Children are experiencing food insecurity to an extent unprecedented in modern times.”Patrick Stover
Those improvements were not equal across the board. According to the same data, pre-COVID-19 rates of food insecurity were higher than the national average among Hispanic households, at 15.6%, and non-Hispanic Black households, around 19%.
Any improvements have evaporated in recent months, Stover said. “Children are experiencing food insecurity to an extent unprecedented in modern times.”
Vulnerable groups saw the biggest drop in food security
Stover cited data from the Brookings Institution showing that at the end of April, the nationwide level of food-insecure households had risen to 20%. And for households with a child, that level was over 34%.
Moreover, COVID-19 exacerbated existing disparities, Stover said. According to a study by Northwestern University, the rates of food insecurity in April and May for white, Hispanic, and Black Americans were 18%, 32% and 36%, respectively. Among households with children, 30% were food insecure overall, but 36% of those with a Hispanic respondent and 41% of those with a Black respondent were food insecure. In Texas, 23% of households without children were food insecure, in contrast to 30% of households with children.
By mid-August, most households across the nation were returning to their pre-COVID food spending levels, according to analysis by the AFPC. But remarkably, the data also showed that the most food-insecure group in Texas was still spending 30% less on food in mid-August than before the pandemic. That was not the case in the rest of the U.S.
“This is experimental data, so we have to be careful in drawing conclusions, but it does raise red flags about lingering impacts for the most vulnerable Texans,” Stover said.
Voices from Texas
For added context on food insecurity in Texas, Stover shared video interviews with food bank and produce industry representatives. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rio Grande Valley and the South Texas region saw the highest levels in Texas of diet-related chronic disease and food insecurity. Those levels shot up during the first months of the pandemic, putting extra pressure on the existing safety net.
Libby Campbell, executive director, West Texas Food Bank, Odessa, saw a vastly increased demand for the organization’s services. The nonprofit food bank serves 19 counties through its headquarters in Odessa and Midland.
“Last year, we gave out 6.4 million pounds of food to those 19 counties,” Campbell said. “This year — we actually finished the last day of September with our year — and we finished between 10.2 to 10.35 million pounds of food.”
Another food bank’s officer described the impact in a different way.
“I can describe it as a disaster that has not stopped,” said Libby Salinas, chief program and equity officer, Food Bank of Rio Grande Valley. “One of the most horrific things we’ve had to deal with is that so many people need assistance.”
COVID-19 exacerbated racial and ethnic disparities in health
The minority groups more affected by food insecurity are also disproportionately affected by the obesity epidemic, Stover said.
New data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention shows that obesity is increasing in the U.S. and that racial disparities exist. Non-Hispanic Black adults had the highest prevalence of self-reported obesity, at nearly 40%. For Hispanic adults, that number was nearly 34%, and for non-Hispanic white adults, nearly 30%.
According to the CDC, obesity increases the risk of severe illness due to COVID-19 and may triple the risks of hospitalization. These metrics are in line with the fact that obesity is linked to impaired immune function and decreased lung capacity and reserve, and can make ventilation more difficult, Stover said.
Disruption presents opportunities for major improvements
The pandemic has highlighted that the food production system is vulnerable to major disruptions but also extraordinarily resilient, Stover said.
The fact that food remained available in grocery stores does point to existing strengths in the food system, agreed Bart Fischer, Ph.D., co-director of the AFPC. Fischer provided and compiled data for Stover’s talk.
“Even under normal conditions, getting food on the grocery store shelves is a Herculean effort,” Fischer said. “The resiliency of our food system is due, in part, to sound farm policy, but a lot of it is just due to the hard work and ingenuity of our nation’s farmers and ranchers and the U.S. agricultural industry at large.”
Stover said despite the troubling recent trends, the pandemic has revealed opportunities for long-term improvements in health, nutrition and the food system overall. For example, one positive consequence of the pandemic was the roll-out of online access for recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in Texas and the vast majority of the U.S.
However, while feeding people is of the utmost importance, what we are feeding them is equally important, Stover said.
“COVID has laid bare the impact of chronic disease. If we are ever going to make the kind of progress we need to make as a nation in addressing healthcare problems, we must actively address the intersection of nutrition and chronic disease.”