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Commentary: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the Economic Recession on Food Insecurity

Short- and Long-term Recommendations to Assist Families and Communities

Hernandez, Daphne C. PhD, MSEd, FAAHB; Holtzclaw, Lauren E. BS

Author Information
doi: 10.1097/FCH.0000000000000291
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FOOD INSECURITY is the lack of consistent, reliable access to food needed for an active, healthy life.1 In 2018, the prevalence of food insecurity was lower for the first time since the Great Recession that started in December 2007 and ended in June 2009. Approximately 11% of households without children and 14% of households with children experienced food insecurity in 2018.1 However, this low prevalence was only temporary. The increased concerns of individuals being infected by COVID-19 and the associated lack of immunity resulted in schools and businesses closing throughout spring 2020. The US economy entered a recession in February 2020,2 and families began experiencing financial hardship immediately. The Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project estimated in April 2020 that 20% of households with children were experiencing food insecurity.3

Unfortunately, the families disproportionally affected by food insecurity are also the families disproportionally affected by COVID-19 infection and the associated economic fallout (ie, Black and Latinx-headed households).1 The risk for experiencing food insecurity and poor health outcomes are related to the role that discrimination and structural racism contribute to social and economic inequities.4 Those inequities became apparent in the ways families access food and household supplies during the pandemic. During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, panic led to hoarding of food and household supplies. This affected low-income families, who did not have the disposable income to buy in bulk.5 Moreover, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) restrictions prevent recipients from buying nonfood items such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies with their benefits, placing them at a greater disadvantage during the pandemic.6 As families settled into the COVID-19 pandemic, online grocery shopping, including grocery delivery services and curbside pickup options, increased.7 The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently operating a pilot program that allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase grocery items online; however, the program has not been expanded nationally and only a small proportion of recipients have this online option.8 Thus, SNAP recipients, some whose health may be at an increased risk for COVID-19 infection, are forced to walk grocery aisles.

COVID-19 has also changed where Americans eat and the associated food expenditures. Grocery sales have increased, with families preparing more meals at home than eating out at restaurants or fast-food establishments.7 While this should result in families saving money, food prices and household paper product prices have increased since the start of the pandemic,9 which places more strain on families experiencing food insecurity.

To assist families and communities during this time, the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service provided extensive flexibility across its nutrition programs. For example, additional funding has been provided to cover increases in participation in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program have been restructured so that children still have access to food while not at school. These families also received additional funds through the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Program, which operates similarly to SNAP. Finally, emergency supplements were provided to families who normally receive less than the maximum SNAP benefit.10


Despite the aforementioned accommodations, additional strategies are needed to reduce food insecurity among families and communities greatly impacted by the pandemic. Specifically, these strategies need to consider how racial discrimination has contributed to social and economic inequities that have prevented families from getting out of poverty.4 During the recession, the maximum SNAP allotment should be increased by 15%. Thus, benefits for a family of 4 would be $100 per month. In addition, the minimum SNAP benefit should be increased from $16 to $30.11 While a simultaneous pandemic and recession are unprecedented, the idea of increasing SNAP benefit allotments as a response to a recession is not. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Public Law 111-5) increased SNAP benefit allotments after the Great Recession ended in 2009. The benefit increase helped families purchase food and prevented food insecurity and poverty rates from further escalating.11 The current recommended changes would allow low-income families to prepare for the challenges associated with COVID-19 and the consequent recession. Currently, most of these families do not have disposable income to stock up on food. If they were to become sick, many of them would not have the food needed to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines of self-isolating at home for 2 weeks.

Based on the food insecurity trends at the end of the Great Recession, the rates may not decline for upward of 6 years. During the last recession, SNAP benefit allotments were increased and maintained at that level from 2010 to 2013; however, declines in rates of food insecurity were not observed until 2015.12 To observe a different trend following COVID-19, not only must SNAP benefit allotments increase but the increase must be maintained as well for at least 3 years after the pandemic has receded. Low-income families will require additional assistance due to wages lost from COVID-19 and the recession. Extending these benefits will help decrease this strain.

Increasing SNAP allotments would also benefit the community. Each $1 of SNAP benefits spent during an economic downturn generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity, which is money that is needed in the local economy during this time.11 Furthermore, allowing families to use SNAP and WIC benefits for online grocery shopping would bolster the local economy and potentially decrease the infection rate. Items that can be bought with SNAP and WIC benefits should also be expanded. Cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment currently cannot be purchased with SNAP or WIC benefits.6 Allowing these items to be included under the program's purview will bolster the economy and assist families in complying with CDC guidelines to lower the spread of COVID-19.

Another way to bolster the economy is transportation assistance. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, transportation spending has declined.7 Many low-income individuals are considered essential workers and do not have enough funds to pay for gas or other forms of transportation beyond what is necessary to get to work. Thus, transportation becomes a barrier to accessing food. Providing a gas or transportation voucher to low-income families would greatly benefit families in accessing food and would in return assist the community.

In the long term, a comprehensive approach that addresses social determinants is key to effectively reducing food insecurity. Research has indicated that families who have difficulties accessing food also have difficulties paying their utilities, rent, and related housing bills.13 More recent research indicates that there is a bidirectional relationship between food insecurity and housing instability.14 Families who experience food insecurity may be at risk for experiencing housing instability, and vice versa, as a result of the depletion of financial resources with which both forms of basic needs are associated.14 Thus, a holistic program that addresses both food insecurity and housing instability is needed. For example, recipients of food assistance programs such as SNAP would automatically be eligible for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which assists households with heating and cooling costs, along with energy-related home repairs.14 The COVID-19 pandemic will likely have immediate and far-reaching consequences on the ability of families to secure food and housing resources. Policies that adequately address both issues are equally important.

Furthermore, packaging both food and housing support together could address another public health concern: adolescent mental health. Adolescents in food- and housing-insecure families may internalize their parents' mental health and parenting struggles, which then manifests into their own depression and anxiety symptoms.15 Legislation that proposes food and housing insecurity interventions together, such as SNAP and LIHEAP, may reduce overall levels of household stress and improve adolescent mental health outcomes.14

This is an unprecedented time in our nation, and low-income families and communities are relying on public and private programs more than ever. While we must meet the immediate needs of low-income families, we must start to simultaneously think about how communities impacted by discrimination and structural racism are also impacted by food insecurity.4 Until we acknowledge that food insecurity is a complex, interrelated problem between families and communities and that food insecurity is related to other material and mental health hardships, food insecurity rates will not decrease.


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2. National Bureau of Economic Research. NBER determination of the February 2020 peak in economic activity. Published 2020. Accessed June 8, 2020.
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8. US Department of Agriculture. USDA announces retailer volunteers for SNAP online purchasing pilot. Published 2017. Accessed June 1, 2020.
9. Horsley S. We're eating at home and its costing us more. Published 2020. Accessed June 1, 2020.
10. US Department of Agriculture. FNS response to COVID-19. Published 2020. Accessed June 8, 2020.
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15. Hatem C, Lee CY, Zhao X, Reesor-Oyer L, Lopez T, Hernandez DC. Food insecurity and housing instability during early childhood as predictors of adolescent mental health. J Fam Psychol. 2020;34(6):721–730.
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