Publication Spotlight: Food Insecurity Status during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Published: January 11, 2022

Food insecurity is by no means a recent development in the US. In fact, this issue is estimated to cost our country over 182 billion dollars a year, mostly due to health care costs. However, like many other issues in our society, food insecurity worsened in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. But how? Seven public health professionals, including Dr. Kathryn M, Janda, Dr. Nalini Ranjit, Aida Nielsen, and Dr. Alexandra van den Berg from the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, sought to answer this question. The purpose of the study was to figure out which social, demographic, and food access-related factors were associated with becoming or continuing to be classified as food insecure in a diverse population in Central Texas.

Food insecurity is made up of four components: 1) physical availability of food in one’s region or community, 2) the ability to obtain food without safety concerns, economic or geographical barriers, 3) individual consumption and use of food, and 4) how stable these factors remain over time. These components are typically referred to as availability, access, utilization, and stability over time. Food insecurity is never an isolated issue, and often occurs as a result of economic disadvantage. There is a historical pattern of lower income households and households of color being more likely to be food insecure than their higher income and non-Hispanic White counterparts. Our researchers took all of this into consideration when looking at data and determining which questions to ask.

The pandemic and its lockdown orders, school closures, limited hours for food/retail, and social distancing policies all greatly impacted food insecurity.  In order to determine which factors played a role in worsening food insecurity during this time, our researchers provided a survey to Austinites in Eastern Travis County and other lower income zip codes in the Austin area. The survey focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity, variables that influenced food access such as food price consistency, shopping behaviors, and food availability, and sociodemographic characteristics such as race/ethnicity/language spoken, number of children in a household, and employment status. Participants were considered “stayed food secure,” “consistently food insecure,” or “newly food insecure” before and during the COVID-19 pandemic based on their answers in the survey. The final sample included 367 people and respondents were rewarded $25 gift cards for completing.

The results of this survey and study found various factors that were associated with food insecurity. Households with children, changes in employment and wages, issues of food availability, changes in shopping locations due to food-accessibility issues, and having less than a week of food were all significantly related to becoming newly food insecure and remaining food insecure during the pandemic. Not only that, but being Black and/or Latino was additionally associated with being consistently food insecure before and during the pandemic. Since these are variables that impacted food insecurity before the pandemic, we can assume that COVID-19 is worsening existing issues and variables rather than creating new ones.

So, where do we go from here? Well, our researchers believe that future studies should dive into COVID-19’s impact during later pandemic stages and the importance of conducting more community-specific studies to assess how food insecurity is experienced in other communities outside of Central Texas. This study provides necessary evidence showing that COVID-19 has only worsened existing barriers to food security, especially in Travis County. This is an important observation given that USDA ERS data has found that food insecurity did not increase nationally from 2019 to 2020. However, our researchers believe that, as evident with this study, that communities can experience very different realities than the national data imply. With more community-specific studies like this one, we can better understand where these pockets of worsening food insecurity are occurring, address barriers to food security and identify places where we can intervene.

Feel free to read the full study here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34444757/

Written by:
Kelsi Peterson
Dell Health Undergraduate Scholar