Along with causing higher rates of unemployment and poverty, the COVID-19 pandemic has also pushed more people into a struggle to buy the basics, including food.
Grocery store food prices have gone up only about 5% since January 2019, but with so many people out of work, food banks have seen a surge in demand, said Zoë Plakias, an assistant professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural & Environmental Sciences (CFAES).
While facing an increasing demand, food banks have also received fewer food donations from grocery stores that give their excess products. When stores can’t keep their shelves stocked, less may be available for donation, Plakias said.
With many incomes reduced during the pandemic, more people are taking advantage of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, and new food aid programs have been started.
However, that’s not enough to meet the need, Plakias said.
“Ultimately, all of these food programs are Band-Aids,” she said. “What people need is regular, steady income. This is a poverty problem. This is not a food supply problem. We have enough food. The problem is people not having the income to purchase that food.”
Food insecurity was one of the topics Plakias recently discussed during the 2020 Agricultural Policy & Outlook Conference hosted by the CFAES department of agricultural, environmental and development economics. She was among a slate of speakers over the four-day conference who offered projections on food spending, farm prices and income and the overall economy in 2021.
Before the coronavirus pandemic began, 10.5% of U.S. households were food insecure at some point during 2019, meaning they lacked enough food for an active, healthy life for all members of their household. In July, nearly 20% of households surveyed nationally said children in their home were not eating enough sometimes or often in the past week because they could not afford food. A separate national survey in June showed that 9.7% of those who responded said they couldn’t afford to buy enough food in the past week.
The pandemic has led to more people applying for SNAP. However, for some, it can be a challenge finding out about the program or signing up for it because they live in rural areas where internet access is unreliable or unavailable, Plakias said. “That’s a huge issue,” she said. “I hope that COVID-19 is catalyzing interest and support for increasing internet access to rural areas.”
The challenge of affording food extends well beyond the U.S. By the end of 2020, an estimated 270 million people worldwide are expected to be food insecure, according to estimates from the U.N. World Food Program. That’s an 82% increase from the level of food insecurity before the pandemic began, Ian Sheldon, an agricultural economics professor and Andersons chair of agricultural marketing, trade and policy at CFAES, said.
“It still shocks me that we have food insecurity in the U.S., where we have one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. You’d think we’d have put in place a safety net sufficient to ensure everyone has enough food,” he said.