US food security gains obliterated by pandemic

Posted: 22 January 2021 | | No comments yet

Researchers in the US have claimed that race was a contributing factor to increased food insecurity in Pittsburgh during the pandemic, reflecting what one researcher called “systemic issues including structural racism”.

Pittsburgh skyline

The research focused on two neighbourhoods in the US city of Pittsburgh.

Food insecurity spiked among residents living in two predominantly African American neighbourhoods during the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, far outpacing food insecurity observed among the general US population during the same period. This is according to a new RAND Corporation study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Following residents of two Pittsburgh low-income African American neighbourhoods, the study found that the pandemic increased the number of people facing food insecurity by nearly 80 percent.

Similar to US national trends, the researchers say food insecurity among residents had been improving consistently since 2011. However, the study found that those gains were erased by the pandemic, with the disparities between the predominantly African American residents and the rest of the US population at the highest levels seen over the past decade.

“In a short period of time, the coronavirus pandemic has magnified pre-existing racial and ethnic disparities in food security,” said Tamara Dubowitz, the study’s lead author and a senior policy researcher at RAND.

“While food insecurity is linked to a wide variety of health problems, these disparities reflect larger systemic issues including structural racism.”

The study involved residents of the Hill and Homewood neighbourhoods in Pittsburgh that have been the focus of a long-running research project investigating the influence that diet, access to food and other items have on residents’ health and wellbeing.

Both of the neighbourhoods followed are primarily African American and low income. A group of residents of both areas have been surveyed about their access to healthy food on several occasions since 2011.

For the latest study, RAND researchers surveyed a group of 605 residents from the neighbourhoods during March, April and May 2020, asking about how the pandemic was affecting their access to food.

The study found that the number of residents reporting food insecurity increased from 20.7 percent in 2018 to 36.9 percent in 2020 – a nearly 80 percent rise. Previous research had shown that food insecurity had been falling in the two neighbourhoods since 2011.

Among those surveyed, participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (52.2 percent) and food bank use (35.9 percent) did not change significantly during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This finding suggests that existing safety nets may need more support in order to reach those with emerging needs,” Dubowitz clarified. 

“Lack of reported use could be due to difficulties with SNAP enrollment, problems accessing food banks in the early days of the pandemic, or feelings of stigma related to participating in such programmes.”