Northwestern researchers find a dramatic increase in food insecurity during COVID-19 pandemic


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Annenberg Hall. SESP prof. and Director of the Institute for Policy Research Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and research analyst Abigail Pitts found that in April, food insecurity doubled overall and tripled among families with children.

Vivian Xia, Reporter

Northwestern researchers found that there have been dramatic increases in food insecurity since the COVID-19 pandemic, with especially high rates for black and Hispanic households.

SESP Prof. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, the director of the Institute for Policy Research, and research analyst Abigail Pitts performed data analysis on published data to reach these conclusions.

The team separated groups based on race, income and presence of children and estimated the increase in food insecurity in April 2020 by comparing recent data from the COVID Impact Survey to data on food insecurity collected in April from 2011 to 2018. They also ran regression analyses to predict the likely rates of food insecurity right before the pandemic and to estimate how much of the increase in food insecurity experienced in April can be attributed to the increase in unemployment rate.

They found that there have been sharp increases in food insecurity in April 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Relative to March, April food insecurity doubled overall and tripled among those with children.

“We worked pretty hard to try to figure out how to make the data that’s being collected now as comparable as possible to what was collected before so we could say something like, ‘the food insecurity rate has doubled overall,’ or ‘it’s tripled for families with children,’” Schanzenbach said.

The team also found that food insecurity in April increased by more than what would have been and that 7 percent of respondents overall are experiencing food insecurity. Of that population, 20 percent reported receiving benefits from food pantries. However, rates of food insecurity and food pantry use varied widely among states and metropolitan areas.

“I’ve done a calculation that the increase in unemployment and unemployment rate alone explains more than half of the increase in food insecurity rates,” Schanzenbach said. “Another driving factor also is that usually, low-income kids get lunch every day, often breakfast also, at school, and so they lost access to breakfast and lunch.”

Pitts said the team’s findings highlight that many people currently struggle with food insecurity during the pandemic, so it is important for the government to provide support to these people.

That support, Pitts said, includes extra Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs and unemployment benefits.

Recently, Schanzenbach and Weinberg senior Natalie Tomeh have created a new app that visualizes food insecurity data across the nation. It displays weekly rates of food insecurity from April 23 and onward based on data from the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey. The data can also be sorted by race and ethnicity for certain states.

Tomeh, who designed the app, said although she still sees room for improvement, she is ultimately proud of her work.

“I’ve been working really hard on (the app) recently, so I still have a list of 100 ways in my head that I would tweak it, or add this thing, or change this, or make it a little bit different,” Tomeh said. “So I could easily continue working on it until my hands fall off, but I feel pretty proud of it.”

Schanzenbach said the information the app displays is very important and that she is trying to make sure people in charge of food banks can access it.

“One of the great things that we can do as an institution is (to) help people sort through data and make sense of trends and information like that,” Schanzenbach said. “What we’ve been trying to do the whole time is (to) wrap our arms around understanding what’s happening to families so that we can hopefully devise better policy solutions.”

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