We too often hear of hunger or “the hungry,” but what we really mean is food insecurity. It’s important that we clarify the difference too. What is “food insecurity” then?
Food insecurity is the lack of reliable access to enough nutritious foods to make up and maintain a well-balanced diet and lifestyle for a household– measured through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
According to Feeding America, in 2019, over 4 million Californians were experiencing food insecurity with approximately 72% of Californians eligible for nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (now renamed CalFresh.) (3)
“California produces the world’s food and yet here we are with so many families facing ongoing food insecurity,” claims David Knight, Executive Director of the California Community Action Partnership Association. “It’s not a level of production issue, it’s the system in which we get food on tables.”
What Causes Food Insecurity?
There are many factors that contribute to individuals and families facing food insecurity– some that seem to be thrust upon us, and some that others would describe as “self-inflicted”.
Individuals and families across the country face food insecurity daily as the cost of living increases, unemployment rates remain high, and many live in a constant state of panic as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. We could even attribute it to lack of transportation access and the quality, price, and cultural appropriateness of the offerings – the reasons vary and are endless.
One major contributor to food insecurity is lack of access to affordable, nutritious food. Low-income, high minority neighborhoods tend to have more convenience stores versus middle to high-income, predominantly white communities that have more access to supermarkets with a wider array of nutritious fruits and vegetables. These disparities in healthy food access contribute to an urban environment in which healthy food is inaccessible and unaffordable for many of its residents.
“Recent national-scale studies conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA ERS) and The Reinvestment Fund have found that 25 to 30 million Americans—about 9 percent of the total population—are living in communities that do not provide adequate access to healthy food retailers, such as supermarkets or grocery stores, within a reasonable distance from their home.6
No matter how you look at it, or what identifiable factors are discovered, people are going without viable alternative options and that’s a problem.
But, who are we seeing being hit hardest by food insecurity?
Who is affected?
At the beginning of the pandemic, researchers at the Northwestern Institute of Policy Research found that “food insecurity rates among households with children were sharply elevated– particularly so among Black and Hispanic respondents.” Approximately 41% of Black households experienced food insecurity in a week compared to 37% of Hispanic households and 23% of white households. (1)
Within general racial disparities, we see these communities across California regions affected differently.
“In particular, disadvantaged households in the San Francisco Bay Area – where income and educational levels are higher, but income inequality and cost of living are also higher – seem to be at higher risk for food insufficiency…
Our most notable finding is that these food insufficiency issues were magnified for San Francisco Bay Area households,” Blumenberg said. “For example, Black households in the Bay Area were more likely to suffer from food insufficiency during the COVID-19 crisis than Black households in the southern California Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA).” (2)
According to the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), the median income of San Francisco County is approximately $149,600, almost double the median income of Los Angeles County at $80,000.3 Taking into account the systemic barriers created to hinder our communities of color and factoring in income inequality in these areas of higher cost of living, California has quite a problem on its hands as the racial disparity gap continues to widen.
Effects of COVID-19
It’s no shock that Americans have been suffering since March 2020, when the world practically shutdown overnight. Did we forget the empty toilet paper shelves? Food insecurity is only one of the many setbacks people have faced while living through a pandemic.
Forty million U.S. residents lost their jobs in the first two months of the pandemic. Of those who lost their jobs, 31% reported food insecurity and 33% reported eating less due to financial constraints. (4)
Equaling out to “more than three million California adults reported experiencing household food insufficiency, an increase of 22% from the pre-pandemic rate.” (2)
Unemployment rates remain high, with California facing the second highest unemployment rate in the nation. But rest assured, steps have been taken to provide some relief.
What’s being done about it?
Food banks are a great resource for immediate assistance. Many Community Action Agencies have some form of food program in place. Oftentimes there are designated days/times for pickup, or multiple locations that food banks/pantries operate out of to ensure they can serve a wider range of residents.
For example, Community Action of Napa Valley (CANV), Community Action Partnership of Kern (CAPK) and Inyo Mono Advocates for Community Action (IMACA) have exemplary food bank programs up and running to help combat food insecurity in their communities.
CANV has 7 different locations that they rotate operating between in order to accommodate the large area they cover. Their food pantry network serves more than 1,000 local households each month. IMACA has taken an alternative approach to food distribution. They offer fresh produce and other staples to help people meet their nutritional needs in the form of a monthly drive-thru at 15 locations.
In 2016, The Food Research Action Center (FRAC) ranked Bakersfield, the largest city in Kern County, as the number one food hardship area in America. In an effort to combat this, CAPK distributes millions of pounds of food annually, with more than half of the recipients being children.
These are just a few examples of the differences California Community Action Agencies are making in their communities regarding food insecurity.
“Again, the focus of our Community Action Agencies has been on getting the food into neighborhoods that need the opportunity. This includes ensuring families have access to it as simply as possible,” states David Knight.
Federal and State Relief
Programs such as SNAP, Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and Free and Reduced School Lunch are all available to those in need of assistance. School age students were automatically mailed a Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) card if they were already eligible and receiving free or reduced school meals. Additionally, those currently receiving EBT benefits will see an increase in allotment in October 2021.
Congress passing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was monumental in providing relief to those hit particularly hard by the pandemic when several rounds of stimulus checks were distributed to Americans across the country. California alone distributed the Golden State Stimulus I and II for eligible recipients, with a third round being distributed throughout October.
The relief payments definitely did their job. But for long term success of these programs, California needs to eliminate asset testing in all programs, not just in food programs. Building assets and keeping access to assistance for other needs, affects one’s ability to keep food insecurity lowered.
“Receipt of Unemployment Insurance was associated with a 35% reduction in food insecurity and a 48% decline in eating less due to financial constraints among people with household earnings of less than $75,000 who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.” (6)
California Community Action Agencies are here to help. Reach out to your local agency to find your local food bank, or to receive assistance and direction on how to apply for programs available to you.
Find your local agency here: https://calcapa.org/find-your-local-agency/
- Schanzenbach, D. W., & A. Pitts. (2020, July 9). Food Insecurity during COVID-19 in households with children: Results by racial and ethnic groups. Institute for Policy Research Rapid Research Report. https://www.ipr.northwestern.edu/documents/reports/ipr-rapid-research-reports-pulse-hh-data-9-july-2020-by-race-ethnicity.pdf
- Blumenberg, E., Pinski, M., Nhan, L., & Wang, M. (2021). Regional differences in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food sufficiency in California, April-July, 2020: Implications for food programs and policies. Public Health Nutrition, 1-23. https://doi:10.1017/S1368980021001889
- DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT. (2021, April 26). State Income Limits for 2021. Sacramento.
- Raifman, J., Bor, J., & Venkataramani, A. (2020). Unemployment insurance and food insecurity among people who lost employment in the wake of COVID-19. medRxiv : the preprint server for health sciences, 2020.07.28.20163618. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.07.28.20163618
- Raifman J, Bor J, Venkataramani A. Association Between Receipt of Unemployment Insurance and Food Insecurity Among People Who Lost Employment During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(1):e2035884. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.35884
- Bell, Judith, et al. “Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters: A Review of the Research.” PolicyLink, https://www.policylink.org/resources-tools/access-to-healthy-food-and-why-it-matters.