Federal aid kept food insecurity in check last year despite pandemic's effects, government says

Federal aid kept food insecurity in check last year despite pandemic's effects, government says
© People wearing facemasks wait in line at a walk-up food bank in Los Angeles, Aug. 10, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

A household food insecurity report from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) released on Wednesday found that government intervention during the COVID-19 pandemic helped keep food insecurity rates from worsening throughout 2020.

According to the USDA's report, 10.5 percent of American households experienced food insecurity in 2020, remaining unchanged from 2019.

The USDA reported that 3.9 percent of households experienced the more severe very low food security, not significantly changed from the 4.1 percent who experienced the same the year prior.

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Food spending among generally food-secure households was also observed to have increased by 18 percent. More than half of food-insecure households involved in the USDA's survey reported participating in one or more of the nation's largest food aid programs, SNAP, WIC and the National School Lunch Program.

However, despite the fact that the percentage of households experiencing difficulty in buying food remained the same, certain subgroups did see increases in food insecurity such as children and Black households.

"Children were food insecure at times during 2020 in 7.6 percent of U.S. households with children (2.9 million households), up from 6.5 percent in 2019. These households with food insecurity among children were unable at times to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children," the USDA's report read.

The agency noted that children are usually protected from disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake but that 2020 saw children experience food insecurity along with adults in about 0.8 percent of households with children, an increase of 0.2 percent from 2019.

Among Black households, 21.7 percent of homes experienced food insecurity in 2020, up from the 19.1 percent from the previous year.

The agency's survey involved 34,330 American households and asked one adult from each household about their experiences and behaviors in relation to food security.

Jeremy Everett, executive director of the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, concurred that government intervention was successful in preventing worsening food insecurity.

"I think one of the things that we learned from the Great Recession is that we have to respond robustly and rapidly when we have these extreme economic events," Everett told The Hill. According to Everett, the myriad flexibilities and expansions combined were enough to prevent a worsening food crises in the U.S. and should be proof enough to permanently expand such safety nets.

However, Everett noted that there was still room for improvement. 

"As a nation as wealthy as ours, we really shouldn't have food security rates above 5 1/2 percent," said Everett. "Particularly Black American households, but also people of color in general, who are already disproportionately affecting food and security at a higher rate than those in white households — when you see that number increase during one of these particular periods, that to me is is alarming."

"We don't want to see those rates ever increase right? If we want to be creating a more just equitable society, those numbers need to be constantly in decline, regardless of a pandemic or any other kind of economic shocks," he added.

On Monday, expanded federal unemployment benefits ended for millions of Americans, leaving them without expanded payments that were established during the pandemic.

"I think the important thing to know is that we have agency as a country. We can do something about this," Everett said. "This isn't something that's being done to us."