Household Food Insecurity in 2020: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

The USDA’s report, Household Food Insecurity in 2020, was last week. There’s a lot of data to wade through so here are a few takeaways that we consider important to our work.

The Good: The number of US households that were food insecure did NOT go up during 2020. Many thought that the COVID-19 pandemic would surely contribute to more hunger across America. But 10.5% (13.8 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2020, which is the same percentage of food insecure households in 2019. This means that even during a pandemic, we didn’t see more people going hungry. Why? Because federal, state, and community programs were providing robust support. There were stimulus checks, federal pandemic unemployment benefits, paycheck protection loans, P-EBT, free school meals, suspension of student loan payments, eviction moratoriums, and utility disconnection moratoriums. We saw an incredible response from FarmsSHARE. Food banks in North Carolina handed out more food than ever, and communities across the state came together to support those in need. So while the percentage of food insecure households didn’t go up, it doesn’t mean that the need stayed the same. What it does mean is that the programs that were put in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic worked and people had resources to keep them and their families from going hungry.

The Bad: Many of the programs that enabled families to keep food on the table have either expired or will expire. There aren’t any more stimulus checks in the pipeline, student loans will go back into repayment at the end of January, rental assistance is slowing making its way to renters but won’t prevent many from eventual eviction, most states are finished with federal pandemic unemployment benefits, and federally funded free school meals for every child is set to expire at the current school year. Essentially the programs that have been proven to work (and work quickly) are going to be shut down.

The Ugly: Yes, there’s an ugly part. Food insecurity rates among Black households are triple the rates of white households (21% compared to 7%). Food insecurity rates among Hispanic households are more than double that of white households (17% compared to 7%). The mere fact that the richest country in the world has families that are suffering from hunger is the ugliest statistic of all. Shameful, really. 

So what? The data from the report helps us tell the story of why we need policies and food systems that help ensure families do not suffer from food insecurity. No one wants to see food insecurity on the rise. So let’s take the good, the bad, and the ugly and work to advance policies that nourish families and provide access to healthy food.