U-M: Food insecurity spikes for low-income adults during coronavirus pandemic

People receive free meals at a downtown restaurant Monday, May 11, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo. The restaurant changed its name from The Rieger to Crossroads Community Kitchen and began offering free meals to the homeless and other food-insecure people the day after Kansas City issued stay-at-home orders in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19 nearly eight weeks ago. The effort, funded by donations, has gone from feeding about 150 people a day in March to almost 500 people daily and has served about 30,000 meals in the past two months. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (Charlie Riedel, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ANN ARBOR – Even before school closures and stay-at-home orders were issued in March due to the coronavirus outbreak, four out of 10 low-income Americans were struggling with food insecurity, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.

But challenges presented by the pandemic have only exacerbated the problem, with only 18% of the vulnerable population saying they were able to stock up enough food for two weeks.

Julia Wolfson and Cindy Leung of the U-M School of Public Health have been measuring household food insecurity by using data from a mid-March survey of low-income adults across the country.

“Our study shows that a robust, comprehensive policy response is needed to mitigate food insecurity as the pandemic progresses, particularly expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits, robust unemployment benefits, and ensuring access to food for children eligible for free and reduced price school lunches through the summer and beyond,” Wolfson, assistant professor of health management and policy, said in a statement.

“Doing so will allow us to better support the needs of the population as the spread of COVID-19 continues.”

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According to their study, 44% of low-income adults in the country are food insecure, 20% experience marginal food security and 36% reported being food secure.

Among those experiencing low food security, 41% say they do not have enough food to feed their family or themselves, 36% say they cannot afford to pay rent or mortgage payments and half say they are not able to pay their bills.

According to the study, those experiencing very low food security are more likely to be Hispanic or black, to have no higher education and to have children at home. They are most likely to be renting their homes, to be receiving SNAP benefits and to not have health insurance or Medicaid.

Policies enacted to promote social distancing such as stay-at-home orders and school closures only exacerbate food insecurity for this population by causing loss of jobs and limited access to school meals, according to Wolfson and Leung. These individuals may also be at higher risk of losing their jobs due to less flexibility to allow them to work remotely from home.

“Food is a core determinant of health and food insecurity is associated with numerous poor health outcomes,” Leung, assistant professor of Nutritional Sciences at the School of Public Health, said in a statement. “This study highlights the growing number of families facing food insecurity in the wake of COVID-19 who need additional support with food, finances, and child care.”

U-M’s Poverty Solutions Initiative funded the study.

To read the study abstract, click here.

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About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.