Food Access and Insecurity During COVID-19

Recognizing the problem and taking action


The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our lives in ways beyond what we could have imagined. The disruption of essential elements of life, such as food, water, money, and housing, has been devastating to families and communities, particularly those most vulnerable. While some of the impact on the unavailability of food, for instance, has been due to the pandemic, the inequalities that preexisted the crisis have persisted. Consequently, not everyone has been impacted equally by the inaccessibility of food; yet those who never imagined they would be impacted have found themselves food insecure.

Our research team has been investigating the issues surrounding food access and insecurity locally and globally through our international research task force. The research team also includes an enthusiastic group of undergraduate and graduate students at Penn State, whose efforts have been nothing short of an inspiration. These efforts have morphed into research, outreach, and educational activities reflecting on the complex perspectives overlapping the food insecurity phenomenon. Understanding these perspectives can be critical to eventually address the food insecurity challenge that so many of our communities face around the globe, and in our own neighborhoods.

In this blog we reflect on what we are learning through our early efforts, knowing that even as we see a glimmer of hope in the fight against the virus, the chaos left by this storm is far from resolved. It will take sustained and coordinated efforts to address food inaccessibility and insecurity into the future. So what are we learning?

Recognizing the problem

While the COVID-19 crisis did not create the food insecurity challenge, the crisis certainly worsened and broadened the existing conditions. The incidence of food insecurity has increased globally, and it will persist long after the pandemic has been tamed. For instance, 1.53 million Pennsylvanians reported experiencing food insecurity prior to the crisis (or approximately 12%) versus 1 out of 5 Pennsylvanians filing for assistance during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic approximately 10.5% of all US households reported experiencing food insecurity. That number went up to nearly 1 in 4 during the pandemic. Globally, the incidence of food insecurity increased by approximately 82% compared to pre-pandemic, resulting in over 270 million people acutely food insecure.

Local community efforts

One of our community partners in our research and outreach effort has been the local YMCA’s Anti-Hunger Program. One of the biggest challenges this program faced was the lack of awareness amongst the local community of the food insecurity challenge. Mel Curtis, Director of this program, noted that the pandemic has created a ‘new face’ of hunger where the most unlikely people are now food insecure. Owning a home or a car no longer excludes individuals from facing food insecurity. Enhanced knowledge amongst the communities is important for us to gain broader support for such programs that can reduce the incidence of hunger. People are needed to volunteer resources, including food, money, and their time. In fact, resolving the knowledge-gap in this context has led our team to create materials for an informational campaign to make people aware of the food insecurity crisis.

More information on the students involved and the outcomes of their effort can be found on on the Food Decisions Research Laboratory website. As students developed these materials for the local YMCA, they themselves gained a depth of perspective on this issue. One of the students was so moved that it led the student to take leadership for establishing a Penn State student organization focused on reducing hunger and food insecurity amongst students.

We learned that recognizing the problem is a critical element in the fight against hunger. Surprisingly, there is disbelief about the scale and scope of the food insecurity challenge, and this disbelief needs to be addressed as much as the challenge itself. Furthermore, we realized the passion of our students to get involved, stay engaged, and take action to counter this societal challenge. Getting our students more exposed to such challenges can provide invaluable educational and life experiences for them during their formative university education. Challenging our students with such perspective will be essential for not just their education but for them to eventually become responsible citizens.

Taking Action

The international taskforce that came together gathered data from five countries: US, France, India, South Africa, and Canada. As expected, there were both experiences unique to each country and commonalities in our findings. Several factors shaped unique experiences, amongst them being the prior state of hunger and food insecurity in the nation.

For instance, the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) created by the Economist Intelligence Unit provides a snapshot of where the countries in our national sample were placed in 2020 for their level of food security. We consider this as a pre-existing condition that made the crisis worse in certain parts of the world than others. Some of the factors that are part of this GFSI and created distinct experiences were the type of safety nets for food insecure people. For instance, the research team found that the process of signing up for food security programs was far less arduous (for instance, France) than in other nations. Therefore the appropriate questions had to be modified or removed from the survey instrument used in our study. Other external factors that contributed to the uniqueness of food insecurity experiences were the responsiveness of Government, non-government agencies, and the food industry. Furthermore, it mattered how these entities coordinated their efforts to fight hunger and food insecurity. For instance, the South African food industry decided to self-organize and take actions almost at par to what would be expected by local and national Governments.

Similarly, here in the US, the non-government agencies, local action groups, and the food industry played an important role in providing food, and in coordination and distribution efforts. We are learning that there are several spokes to this wheel of taking action: each can play a role to counter food insecurity. Even when there are anchor programs and projects such as national food security safety nets, such programs may not have the sufficient capacity needed for them to be effective. There is of course the danger of duplicative efforts when grassroot movements emerge in response to a crisis. While we may not be quite at that point in this fight against hunger, another lesson we are learning in these projects is the importance of communicating, coordinating, and leveraging across complementary efforts.

Supply chain… supply chain

It’s always a supply chain issue! Food insecurity is also closely associated with supply chain disruptions, both downstream and upstream. Reducing the incidence of hunger and food insecurity requires having food and making it accessible. That is, sourcing the food that is needed for those in need, and then making it accessible to the final ‘consumer.’ Neither is a trivial issue, as we are learning through these research and outreach projects.

Sourcing food that will eventually be distributed to end users requires coordination between the voluntary suppliers, and those willing to transport the food to appropriate locations. If not well coordinated, this effort itself could run an exorbitant cost, preventing local action groups and other non-government stakeholders from implementing antihunger programs.

As much of a challenge is distributing the food to those who need it. First and foremost, information is not always easily accessible related to where those in need can find free food or reduced price meals. People are also unclear on the criteria that those distributing the food will use to allow access. Furthermore, there is the shame factor associated with walking into a facility or even driving through it to get food. While logistics and operational creativity are needed to solve some of these problems, there also needs to be a level of trust between the different actors involved in making these supply chains functional. Ultimately the purpose is to get food to those who need it the most in a safe, respectful, and convenient manner. Any missing element will disrupt the functionality of these supply chains.

Closing Thoughts

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on food access and insecurity will unfortunately continue long after we have restrained the virus to manageable limits. Greater awareness of this phenomenon is needed so we can take informed actions, in all quarters of the food system. As our experiences demonstrate, the silver lining comes from the opportunity this crisis has presented for our students to understand, appreciate, and take action to address the enormous societal challenges.

Article Topics: food insecurity, foodservice, hunger, Pennsylvania
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