Americans’ Hunger During the Coronavirus Pandemic – Here’s What’s Happening in Los Angeles County

Yves here. This article gives a window into the disgrace of rising hunger during the Covid crisis, particularly since, as readers regularly point out, hunger in advanced economies nearly always the product of distribution of food, rather than actual shortages.

I’m also emphasizing the word hunger, as opposed to the bloodless formulations in the policy literature like “food insecurity”. How about worrying about malnutrition as well? In fairness, the anodyne description of these afflictions may be as much due to The Conversation’s house style as norms in academic circles. But some quotes from people running food banks or in distress would have given the piece the sense of urgency it warrants.

By Kayla de la Haye, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine, University of Southern California. Originally published at The Conversation

The number of Americans who can’t get enough food is rising from already troubling levels during the COVID-19 pandemic. About 1 in 10 Americans said in November 2020 that their household sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the previous week, the U.S. Census Bureau found.

Food insecurity – what happens when someone doesn’t have enough money for food – is just as bad in Los Angeles County, home to one-quarter of California residents. These roughly 10 million people live primarily in urban areas like the cities of Los Angeles, Malibu, Hollywood and Compton.

The Los Angeles crisis surged the most in April, when 26% of all households – and 39% of low-income households – experienced food insecurity that month. By October, the situation had improved somewhat, with 11% of the county’s households and 17% of low-income households remaining food-insecure. The majority of these people are women, Latino, low-income and parents.

Even the lower rate in October was more than triple the norm before the pandemic: Some 5% of low-income households were likely to have experienced food insecurity in any given month of 2018, the most recent comparable data available.

Tracking Food Insecurity in Los Angeles County

Food insecurity has long been a challenge for Angelenos, especially people with low incomes, people of color and those living in neighborhoods that don’t have enough affordable healthy food.

So when the coronavirus pandemic began, I teamed up with other experts formed by USC Dornsife’s Public Exchange to track how this emergency would affect food security in this region. Our team includes scholars of public health, psychology, health policy, geography and data science. We met every week with the local government representatives leading efforts to address this issue and coordinated with several nonprofits that connect people with food and financial assistance.

Since April, we have surveyed 1,800 adults, who are representative of households in the county, to track their experiences.

We also partnered with Yelp, the local search and review site, which shared information about restaurants and grocery stores across the county, including which ones have closed or stayed open or added delivery services. This data helps us understand how easy or hard it is for people to get food in their own neighborhoods.

The Causes of Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is most often brought on by poverty, job loss or a health crisis. It’s no surprise that it would spike during a pandemic that’s caused so much unemployment and illness.

We’ve found that the biggest risk factors for food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic were having a low household income, being unemployed and being a young adult. People between the ages of 18 and 30 were most at risk, while those 65 or older were the least.

We also determined that being a single parent increased the risk of experiencing food insecurity.

On top of economic challenges, the pandemic is disrupting farming and the production and distribution of food. Grocery prices have gone up at least 3.4% since the start of 2020, far exceeding the 2% annual average growth of grocery prices over the past two decades.

At times, restaurants, supermarkets and smaller food stores have curtailed their hours. Our community partners are concerned that it will be hard for independent restaurants and groceries to keep their doors open.

Health Consequences

Not having enough to eat is a major public health concern, not only because it causes hunger and distress, but also because it’s linked to poor nutrition and unstable diet patterns.

For example, a family without enough money for food at the end of the month, when bills are due, may eat very little. That family might, when they have money, then stock up on cheaper foods that have lots of calories and will last a long time. Those shopping trips are unlikely to include many expensive fruits and vegetables.

This pattern helps explain why food insecurity increases risks for diet-related diseases, like diabetes and heart disease

Weaker Ties Make It Worse

The coronavirus pandemic has made it clearer than ever that the people in your life and where you live affect your health.

Stay-at-home orders are designed to limit the contact we have with family, friends and other acquaintances. These restrictions also make it harder for people to help and support one another during a crisis.

We found that people with fewer relatives and friends were more likely to experience food insecurity at the start of the pandemic.

And we’re hearing that accessing food has been even harder than usual for people who rely on public transportation, with them having the extra risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.

The pandemic has also made it hard to connect with organizations that provide support. With the closure of many school buildings and community centers in Los Angeles County, local government staff and organizations have been working hard so that low-income kids and other residents can still get free or low-cost meals.

On top of all of this, the pandemic is causing huge challenges for emergency food donation programs. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank has more than doubled the amount of food it gives away during the pandemic. Food pantries can’t always get enough food or volunteers to serve all of the people who show up.

On a recent call with a food pantry, I heard about how they went from serving 300 families a week before the pandemic to 4,000 a week now – and how hard it’s been to get enough food to distribute to everyone who lines up.

These emergency food programs just weren’t designed to cope with a crisis at such a big scale, or one that lasts for so long.

To better understand the landscape of food assistance in Los Angeles, we are getting comprehensive information about these programs through Aunt Bertha, a nationwide social care search-and-referral platform where people can search for many types of food assistance, from government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to local food pantries and community gardens.

More Angelenos Are Getting SNAP Benefits

We’re seeing evidence that food aid and government benefits may make a big difference. For example, the number of Los Angeles households getting SNAP benefits rose by 20%, from 686,378 in March to 822,356 in July. Some of the people we’re tracking managed to become food-secure after getting government food and financial help.

More Angelenos have also been getting other forms of governmental financial assistance, such as unemployment benefits, and obtaining aid from food pantries and the like.

Nationally, there has also been an uptick in the use of community and government assistance programs and signs that government aid is helping families become food-secure.

However, many people still do not have enough food, including some who obtain food and financial help.

Our findings also point to other opportunities that governments and community organizations have to help people get the food they need. For example, they can help small grocers in neighborhoods that don’t have many food stores stay open and provide subsidized food delivery to low-income people without cars.

We hope our study will help Los Angeles and other cities find opportunities to help everyone get enough to eat during the pandemic.

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  1. Dave Miller

    Please… The term “food insecurity” is a buzz word. What is the definition? Who came up with it? Has there been even the simplest randomized test with a few people knocking on doors in places like LA?

    There are people without electricity (some of the street people I know in Austin). Many use very simple $20 gas cook stoves and make pots of beans, rice and jalapenos. A person can live for $15/week. The best organized street people do it- and I’ve done it in the past. Not elegant but nourishing even without the backdoor handouts of no-longer-salable vegis. And what did we do with the money we saved? Cheap vodka and marijuana. I had some pretty good times out there…

    Now at the other end of the spectrum are the disorganized, the broken, the addicted and the “off their meds” people- and the too lazy or too angry who are basically unemployable. I’m 76. So are some of the guys living on the alley behind me. I don’t know how they do it. It is 4 am and I just went out on my 2nd story porch facing the alley- 35-40 degrees and clear. There was one young guy out; too cold to sleep on the cardboard in the doorway so he was walking in circles.

    But “food insecurity” is nothing more than a political campaign term. If there is a good etymologist out there please track down the origin of this buzz word and place it as a comment. And if you don’t think hunger is a problem try to see what 72 hours on water is like.

    1. Alfred

      FWIW: A quick search of Google Books suggests to me that the term, “food insecurity,” may have emerged in the late 1940s in the literature of anthropology. The early usage that seems to be most frequently cited is in a paper by Allan Holmberg on a case of nomadism: . From later citations that Google Books finds I get the impression that usages of “food insecurity” have proliferated since the 1960s.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Your comment ranges all over the place. You recall living on the street as “some pretty good times” in one paragraph and then wonder how “the guys living on the alley behind” and dealing with “35-40 degrees and clear” can do it. Do all the guys in the alley behind fit into your category “disorganized, the broken, the addicted” or “too lazy or too angry” to be employed? How did you have “some pretty good times” when it was “35-40 degrees and clear”? And then you close with: “And if you don’t think hunger is a problem try to see what 72 hours on water is like.”

      I think your suggestion that “food insecurity” is nothing more than a political campaign term misses some of the implications of the construction. I believe the term is better characterized as a cold, bloodless circumlocution invented for cold, bloodless discussion of the problem of hunger by people with full bellies.

      1. JBird4049

        Well, Americans don’t starve, that’s so third worldish. We have “food insecurity” although it has been awhile since true starvation was a thing in the United States. Maybe that is making a comeback since it last appeared in the Great Depression?

        My experience is that the prolonged daily shortfall is worse. Everyone has had the experience, even if it is just by being distracted. That little bit of not enough adds up over time though. One becomes like a house of cards for any unexpected stress and just collapses, which is what I believe we are going to see soon. Millions living on not quite enough, perhaps by getting enough to the kids. Caffeine, anger, or rage can help for a while with the emptiness, rather like adding a dab of jet fuel or maybe some nitrous oxide to the gasoline for an extra burst of energy.

        Fortunately, thanks to family, I am doing good this year, but what about all the others who are going hungry? What will be their response especially when the kids go hungry?

        1. BlakeFelix

          I think that Germans before the Nazis took over were living on something like 1, 000 calories a day for quite a while. Didn’t seem to do much for their temperament.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Believed for a long time that if a country is going to have a government, then there must be some fundamental functions that a government will have to perform to earn any legitimacy. But one of the most basic of functions is that a country must ensure that its people do not starve. If a government does not perform that function, then how can it expect the support of its people? This tenet of neoliberalism to throw people to the wolves and expecting private charities to feed them at the same time they cut financial aid to those charities is suicidal. I have seen it done in many countries and I do not understand this pernicious disregard for so many people’s lives like in this article. It is literally cutting the ties that bind them to their government and there is going to be hell to pay for this one day.

    1. Bob

      The article of faith for the US government is the financialization of all aspects of society.

      The government is run for the benefit of a few oligarchs who use their financial power as sanctioned by the courts to provide donations (bribes) to elected officials.

      The result is that the ordinary folks are saddled with ever increasing debt and insecurity while the oligarchs receive ever smaller tax bills.

      Sooner or later this house of cards will fall.

    2. tegnost

      what is that saying about chickens and the roost?
      Unfortunately the back story for this is, more than in any other place I’ve been (but as the saying goes, cali is first then everyone follows and in seattle I think the predominant landscaping worker is a honduran refugee) california loves… I mean loves cheap powerless labor (but don’t you dare try to troll a patent!). When I was doing landscape construction in La Jolla in the 2000’s clients would ask my boss who the white guy was and is he sure I won’t sue them and could he not bring me back. My co workers from various parts of mexico lived in the bushes, but they’d be like “don’t worry I have a great spot under a hedge”. When I did a project in San Mateo in 2016 I would drive by crowds of workers waiting for el jefe to pick them, and the street behind Macbeath (incredible selection of lumber) was completely full of homeless people, like more than 100 cars as apartments. That is your preferred cali worker. I think that accounts for the bloodless tone of the article. It’s cultural there. Ask my sister about the homeless she sees on her way to work and you’ll find out she despises them. (a side note, hillary supporters are some of the meanest people I have ever experienced. It makes me glad I don’t have to go there for xmas, Thanks Covid!) it crossed my mind that there are no quotes from homeless people because they didn’t talk to any. There’s only this, which makes it seem that the author was on a zoom call with a food bank…
      “On a recent call with a food pantry, I heard about how they went from serving 300 families a week before the pandemic to 4,000 a week now – and how hard it’s been to get enough food to distribute to everyone who lines up.” That’s it. And clearly it’s exponentially worse than the last time I was there.
      Wuk, who is under the knife today, and to whom I send best wishes, aptly points out the value of immigrant labor to the cali economic engine, but also points out they are mostly worn out by 45 and either die, go back to mexico or parts farther south. I noted in the article, over 65 experiences less hunger in cali. Is this a sign that the quest to get the poor to die before age 65 is going well? I eventually bailed back to seattle as surfing was not enough to make up for all the bad things about cali, but I’ve been officially priced out of there too since 2010. This brings us to food stamps. My college student is on food stamps. $195 a month. That’s a joke. The article points out food prices up almost 4% this year, and typically rise 2% every year (but there’s no inflation…right) I add $400 a month to that and she still struggles, but has fruits and veg and is able to go organic mostly so less poison. Also her college tuition is paid for through food stamps. To end on a positive note, this is a person who was very on the edge but with college has been able to focus and live a life of the mind to some degree and is slowly getting less jittery, but I worry what will happen when she graduates. At any rate it’s a concrete solution for at least some of the unsecure. She calls it BFET, this is the program…
      and it’s for this alone that I voted this past election so I could vote for inslee

  3. Amfortas the hippie

    acquaintances at the local food bank(run by the churches, and with a sermon gauntlet one must endure to get help) and the “community kitchen”(run by city/county/charity/grants, and meant, pre-pandemic, for all our old people(meals on wheels)(almost 30% of population over 65))…that they are running flat out, and cannot keep up.
    The local Rumor Mill, which is the gossip side of our unofficial mutual aide society*, has been busy for almost a year distributing food to po folks…including newly po folks…who, for whatever reason, don’t or can’t take advantage of the food bank/community kitchen.
    (pride and immigration status factor into this inability)
    we’re an isolated and tight-knit community, compared to most places….i can only imagine what it’s like elsewhere.
    all this is the #2 reason i’m essentially doubling the raised bed space out here, and adding more meat birds and egg production, and have gone crazy with seed saving and seed ordering(#1 is for our own stability, of course…the idea that when the O2 masks pop out, you put yours on first, so you’re conscious to help your kid)
    I have seen dark days ahead since all this began….famine in america…because money is all that matters.
    I took 12 dozen eggs to town yesterday….and will take 12 dozen more tomorrow.
    I just hope that the 4 year long grasshopper plague is over(won’t know for sure til june).
    starving people make terrible neighbors….which is about the only argument for mutual aide that can reliably penetrate the now habitual Bootstrap shibboleth.

    (* when the scanner goes off, wife’s Mom calls to see where the sirens are going…and then gets in her car and goes to make sure whatever needs doing is done, from kids being taken care of, to the oven being turned off…the tax for this service is the rumor mongering about who got drunk, who slept with who, etc)

    1. Anarcissie

      I’m involved with a Food Not Bombs / Mutual Aid / food bank / free fridge complex, and they could all use your help. At FNB we have gone from 50 people per food share to 250 or more. Because so many people are out of work / money, and soon to be out on the street, the stores are unable to sell even food and give it away. If you stock a public refrigerator or pantry it gets cleaned out in half an hour. We are in a Third-World country now, and there’s going to be some trouble about it.

  4. Tom Stone

    In 2019 it was estimated that half the population of Sonoma County visited the Redwood Empire Food Bank.
    The Sebastopol Interfaith Food Bank has also done yeoman service ( No sermonizing, just food) and the local community Church will be handing out a chicken with all the fixin’s, at the Sebastopol Center of the Arts Christmas Eve.
    We have roughly 1 Million Americans about to become homeless according to Wolf Richter’s estimate, if things are handled the way I expect them to be that is just the beginning.
    There’s Power to be had and Money to be made!

    1. Massinissa

      I wonder how working class people felt in 1929. Remember that the majority of the unemployment from the Great Depression didn’t happen until 1930, despite the crash itself happening in 1929. Beginning to feel like next year is 1930.

  5. Tom Stone

    Totally off topic, the first two caliber .45 “Model P” revolvers made by Colt are still extant and in good working order.
    Made in 1872, adopted by the US Army in 1873.
    Custer died in 1876…
    That same model is still being made today, 148 years later.

    1. Tom Bradford

      An egg will feed you for a day. A chicken will feed you for a year. A Colt .45 will feed you until it meets another one.

  6. al

    Is it possible to talk about hunger, or ‘food insecurity’ in the richest country on the face of the planet, without also investigating the dynamics of food waste and the apparent ambivalent destruction of the very resources needed to sustain human life and good health? More pointedly, see for example,

    “Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic”

    And the government response,

    “Food Loss and Waste”

    Perhaps, these realities represent some of the so-called internal inconsistencies and contradictions of the capitalist economic model; where, the destruction of surplus goods is both a necessary and sufficient policy in order to maintain price floors and profit. Noting that food waste is not exclusively restricted to the first world. See for example,

    “Food grains rot in India while millions live with empty stomachs”

  7. rjs

    a friend on social security who gets a food box from the salvation army once a month reports that the box he picked up yesterday “was real skimpy” compared to previous months, so when you all get through arguing about the definitions of words over here, a donation to your local food bank to make sure your neighbors have enough to eat over the holidays would be appreciated..

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