How COVID-19 affects household food security

The rapid outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has led to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The pandemic has ravaged lives and livelihoods globally, and to date, it has caused more than 4.94 million deaths globally. In addition, the devastating economic impact has had serious implications for food insecurity, defined as the lack of constant physical and financial access to ample, safe, and nutritious food to lead an active and healthy life.

A new study published on the bioRxiv* preprint server investigates changes in household food insecurity throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. To do this, researchers followed a cohort of Vermonters and examined the socio-demographic characteristics correlated with increased odds of experiencing food insecurity.

Food Insecurity

Typically food insecurity rates move closely with unemployment, poverty, and food prices. During the pandemic, additional factors have contributed to food insecurity, such as safety concerns about shopping in stores, limited hours at food retailers, and changes in public transit access. In addition, food insecurity is associated with a wide range of adverse physical and mental health outcomes, such as heart disease, hypertension, depression, etc. Among households with children, food insecurity has also been linked with adverse educational and behavioral outcomes.

Previous research has demonstrated increased food insecurity in the United States during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The data from these reports were used to devise new policies to alleviate household distress. These policies included stimulus checks, expansion of unemployment insurance, increased flexibility in federal food assistance programs, etc. However, cohort studies are less common in the literature but are quite important to understanding the changing food insecurity of the same individuals/households. The current study aims to address this gap in the literature.

A New Study

Researchers conducted three online surveys with a cohort of Vermont residents (441 adults) between March 2020 and March 2021. Longitudinal data on food security, food access, and job disruptions were collected. Food security was measured using the USDA six-item module.

The main objective of the study was to answer three research questions. First, what was the trajectory of food insecurity during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic? Second, what socio-demographic factors and life experiences were associated with increased odds of experiencing food insecurity during the study period? Third, what factors, if any, contributed to the recovery from food insecurity?

Main Findings

The study was longitudinal and documented a statistically significant rise in food insecurity during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the prevalence of food insecurity had decreased in March 2021, the rate was still higher than pre-pandemic levels compared to the initial pandemic months.

Change in food assistance program use during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. P-EBT did not exist prior to the pandemic. *Statistically significant difference (p ≀ 0.05)

Change in food assistance program use during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. P-EBT did not exist prior to the pandemic. *Statistically significant difference (p ≀ 0.05)

This finding is in line with most other studies except for a recent government report that found no change in overall food insecurity prevalence in 2020 compared to 2019.

Researchers also demonstrated that certain demographic groups were at higher odds of experiencing food insecurity, such as women, younger individuals, BIPOC/Hispanic respondents, people with no college degree, lower-income households (< USD 50,000 annually), households with one/multiple children, and individuals who experienced a job disruption.

These results have profound implications for physical and mental health. They may also have implications for short and long-term persistent distress for certain ethnic minorities.

More research is required to understand how food insecurity during the pandemic has impacted diet quality and health, especially among certain high-risk socio-demographic groups.

The results also showed that 32.6% of food-insecure households were not using federal food assistance programs and 40.5% of respondents who reported a job disruption during the pandemic received unemployment insurance.

These findings demonstrate why such a significant increase in food insecurity at the onset of the pandemic and the continued higher prevalence has been observed.

Other factors, such as social stigma around using food assistance programs and administrative burden, might have also contributed to increased food insecurity. These barriers are not well documented in the literature and more research on this topic is required.

Surprisingly, the results suggested that federal assistance did not necessarily alleviate food insecurity when controlling for other demographic factors.

Conclusion

Two limitations of the study were the small sample size, and that food insecurity was treated as a binary outcome. Though federal assistance programs did not necessarily move households out of food insecurity, they may have reduced the severity of the distress. In future research, scientists intend to use the use this longitudinal dataset to investigate how federal and community food assistance programs and unemployment benefits aided in reducing food insecurity while treating it as a continuum.

*Important Notice

medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

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