Why do recent headlines say “no increase in food insecurity in 2020”?

Project Bread


2020 Food Insecurity Data Explained

Recent headlines stating “No increase in food insecurity in 2020” have caused a lot of people to say…huh?

Here is our best attempt to explain the data and the current situation.

First, yes, there was a hunger crisis arising out of COVID.  At Project Bread, we saw it in our own call volume, dramatically increasing by three-fold in the first few months of the pandemic, and we heard it in the stories of people calling – jobs lost or hours reduced, parents having to leave the workforce for child care. There was a dramatic increase due to the economic crisis coming out of COVID.

Why, therefore, did the US Department of Agriculture in its annual report, Household Food Security in the United States in 2020, show that food insecurity in 2020 remained steady, at pre-pandemic rates?  

Well, it is complicated.  Here are some of the key things that you do need to know:

1. Policy change matters and helped a lot of people quickly get the help they need during this crisis.

From the earliest days of this crisis, Project Bread was advocating for big, bold, and necessary solutions to address the scale we were facing, and action was taken.  We saw policy changes put into place that have never been considered in our nation before – like universal free school meals for all kids and pandemic E-BT to allow families additional funding to purchase food when schools were shut down. School meal sites provided a critical food source to households with children. Of households with children who reported receiving free food, an estimated 67.5% received free food from a school meal site.  We also saw the SNAP program become easier to access and more effective, with everyone on it receiving the maximum benefit. And Massachusetts enrollment in SNAP increased 26.4% between July 2019 and July 2021. People who were able to access these programs received critical support they needed. And there was other government action that gave people money, which the majority used to purchase food – the stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, and most, recently, the child care tax credit. For example, 79.8% of households reported that they spent their 1st stimulus payment on food.

For the 500K+ families who relied on school meals and the 900K+ households on SNAP in Massachusetts, the policy decisions making these programs more accessible and more effective were huge.

2. While at a high level, food insecurity may look unchanged, many households were disproportionately impacted.

When the USDA released the Household Food Security in the United States in 2020 report, the first thing people noticed is that both the national rate of food insecurity (10.5% of households) and the Massachusetts rate (8.4%) were unchanged from the 2019 findings. But there is more to that story.

First, we know households across our state and our nation weathered this crisis differently.  Take people who had a full-time job they could work remotely versus those in the restaurant or hospitality sector who lost work completely or had hours significantly reduced.  Or single adults with no children versus those who were juggling remote work and child care.  The reality is that some people did really well in this crisis – they were making as much money before, with fewer expenses – and others were hit hard.  

When you disaggregate the data, you see the disparate impact of this crisis relative to household composition (e.g., households with children, female-headed households with children) and race/ethnicity (e.g., black non-Hispanic reference persons). All of which are historic and problematic trends in food insecurity. The prevalence of food insecurity increased for all households with children from 13.6% in 2019 to 14.8% in 2020. The prevalence of food insecurity also increased in BIPOC households from 19.1% in 2019 to 21.7% in 2020.

3. Data are complicated, and it matters both how you present it and how you collect it.

The USDA data specific to Massachusetts is based on a 3-year rolling average, and the 3 years were 2018, 2019, and 2020. What is more helpful than a rolling average is seeing points in time, because, as we all know, this pandemic has been a roller coaster. Since Summer 2020, Project Bread has relied on the  U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (HPS) to report out regularly on food insecurity in Massachusetts. The HPS survey is collected weekly/biweekly, asks participants about food insufficiency in the past 7 days, is online and self-administered, and participants are recruited via text messaging and emails. (Conversely, the USDA collects data once a year in December, asks about food insecurity in the past 12 months, and is collected over the phone or during a face-to-face interview.) The HPS data has allowed Project Bread for the first time to see changes in food insecurity over a shorter period, helping us to create a real-time picture of food insecurity in our state.

Our analysis of the HPS data showed a rapid increase in food insecurity at the onset of the pandemic and remained high throughout 2020. The HPS also allowed us to look at trends among BIPOC households and households with children; both groups that have struggled more during the pandemic than other groups. Indeed, the data show high rates of food insecurity among BIPOC families, especially among Black and Hispanic families. And that BIPOC families are recovering significantly slower than white families. These disparities further deepen historical trends that show BIPOC households are at an increased risk for food insecurity. This unfortunately, is not the first time we’ve seen this. Research undertaken by Project Bread and Children’s Healthwatch in 2019 showed that the reverberations from racial and ethnic inequities in the response to the 2008 financial crises were still being felt by immigrant and Latino families more than 10 years later. We cannot make the same mistake again.

So where do we go from here?

First, we must lean into the policy solutions that have been working, and not retreat or retract. This means making permanent critical policy solutions like School Meals for All, summer EBT, and the child care tax credit. Second, it also means we need to continue to ensure we are making policy and programmatic decisions with the people most impacted at the center. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to ensure that we can recover stronger than we were before.

As always, Project Bread will be leading the push for equitable recovery, and we want you to get involved:

  1. Advocate for strong hunger solutions–Project Bread is leading a campaign to ensure all students have access to free school meals, regardless of income. You can join our Feed Kids campaign to push for School Meals for All in Massachusetts. Project Bread will continue to advocate for strong solutions to the hunger crisis at the state and federal levels. Complete each of our Action Alerts and to stay informed, join our Action Team.
  2. Share information with your network and community - There is still a SNAP gap of 41.3% in our state – meaning over a third of individuals  who may be eligible for SNAP are not enrolled.  Similarly, the USDA report found that nationally, 45.4% of food insecure households are not participating in federal nutrition assistance programs. This data reinforces our July 2021, Barriers to SNAP research released with a call to action to increase awareness and remove barriers to access.  We know that some of the biggest barriers and misconceptions stopping people from participating in SNAP can be addressed just by sharing accurate information more widely. Help us promote food resources with your networks. Download resources here.
  3. Stay updated on food insecurity trends and solutions – Project Bread will continue to analyze and report out on food insecurity data to inform the causes of hunger and the most impactful and equitable solutions. Follow our social media and blog posts for more information, recent research, and ways to get involved.
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