America’s year of hunger: how children and people of color suffered most

Investigation of a year’s worth of data reveals the scale of America’s hunger and food insecurity crisis during a year of Covid-19

By Nina Lakhani | The Guardian | April 14, 2021 – Graphics by Aliya Uteuova

Black families in the US have gone hungry at two to three times the rate of white families over the course of the pandemic, according to new analysis which suggests political squabbling over Covid aid exacerbated a crisis that left millions of children without enough to eat.

An investigation into food poverty by the Guardian and the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at Northwestern University found gaping racial inequalities in access to adequate nutrition that threatens the long-term prospects of a generation of Black and brown children.

The statistical analysis by economists at IPR is based on landmark research by the Census Bureau tracking in real time the impact of the pandemic on hunger, jobs, housing, mental health, finances and schooling.

Food insecurity, a more expansive hardship measure than hunger, has been at the highest level since annual records began in the mid-1990s, including after the Great Recession, IPR’s analysis shows.

In the week before Christmas, about 81 million Americans experienced food insecurity, meaning that one in four people in the so-called richest country in the world did not have reliable access to sufficient nutritious food needed for a healthy active life.

Luis Alarcon, Bresee youth center volunteer, gets help loading the foundation’s van with Thanksgiving supplies at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on 19 November.

Luis Alarcon, Bresee youth center volunteer, gets help loading the foundation’s van with Thanksgiving supplies at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on 19 November. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

Our analysis, drawing on data from the nationwide surveys, found:

  1. Hunger – defined as not having enough to eat sometimes or often during the previous week – has been reported between 19% and 29% of Black households with children over the course of the pandemic. This compares with 7% to 14% of white American families.

  2. Latino families have experienced the second highest rates of hunger, ranging from 16% to 25% nationally.

  3. Racial disparities varied across states: Black families in Texas reported hunger at four times the rate of white families in some weeks, as did Latinos in New York.

  4. Overall, hunger declined sharply last month, but is falling far slower for people of color.

“Food insecurity and poverty are absolutely racialized, so it’s horrifying, but not surprising, that Black and brown people have suffered disproportionately,” said Paul Taylor, executive director of FoodShare, a Toronto-based food justice organization.

Since the start of the pandemic, hunger in America has soared amid mass layoffs, nationwide school closures and political infighting over relief packages. Families with children have suffered most: the rate of hunger has been 41% to 83% higher for households with children than adult-only ones.

Black and Latino families have gone hungry at much higher rates than white and Asian Americans through the course of the pandemic – in large part due to longstanding racial economic inequalities that have never been addressed. As states reopen and Biden’s aid package reaches those in need, the hunger rate is falling at a slower pace for Black and Latino Americans than white households.

Why have black families experienced hunger at much higher rates than white families? The pandemic exposed and exacerbated existing economic inequalities. In 2019, the unemployment rate for Black Americans was double that for white Americans. Black workers on an hourly rate were 26% more likely than white workers to be on or below the $7.25 federal minimum wage.

Overall, the rate of hunger for families with children has been on average 61% (41% to 83%) higher than for adult-only households.

This is particularly troubling as inadequate nutrition can damage children’s emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing, and the consequences can last a lifetime.

“Covid has amplified existing disparities in education, food insecurity, unstable housing and health outcomes for a whole generation of children,” said Dr Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. “Children have borne the brunt of the lack of action to contain Covid-19 and the failure to prioritize schools.”

In that week before Christmas, as former president Donald Trump stalled signing the third Covid relief package, an estimated 45 million Americans reported not having enough to eat.

“The prevalence of hunger in the US is a political choice,” said Molly Anderson, professor of food studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. “Inequalities are down to political decisions.”

‘We don’t eat well … we’ve got too many bills’

“I don’t sleep much worrying what will happen if we can’t pay the medical insurance,” said Gloria Gomez.

‘I don’t sleep much worrying what will happen if we can’t pay the medical insurance,’ said Gloria Gomez.  Photograph: Michael Starghill/The Guardian

In Houston, Gloria Gomez, 64, was laid off last June after 22 years working for the same cleaning company. She was the main breadwinner as husband Neftali, also 64, is hearing impaired, and the couple have struggled to keep up with rent, health insurance and loan repayments.

“We bought a fridge and air conditioning unit on credit because I never imagined being without a job. The stimulus cheques and unemployment help, but it’s not enough, we’ve got too many bills. We’ve used up our little savings, I don’t know how we’ll survive going forward,” said Gloria outside the family home. The toilet is blocked but they cannot afford a plumber.

Weekly trips to a food pantry help, but Gomez, who is originally from El Salvador and has several diet-related illnesses including high cholesterol and diabetes, is anxious about damaging her health.

“We don’t eat as well, I feel depressed, I don’t sleep much worrying what will happen if we can’t pay the medical insurance. I’ve worked all my life, this is traumatizing.”

Food poverty does not exist in a bubble. A recent survey found that one in eight Americans has reduced food spending to pay for healthcare, with Black Americans twice as likely to be unable to afford quality healthcare compared to white Americans.

The depth and speed of the current economic downturn was unprecedented, but the longstanding gaps in wealth and wages indicate that Black and brown households will take longer to bounce back, according to Kyle Moore, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race and ethnicity.

Volunteers distribute food boxes at West Houston Assistance Ministries on 22 March.

Volunteers distribute food boxes at West Houston Assistance Ministries on 22 March.  Photograph: Michael Starghill/The Guardian

“In periods of general economic growth, racial disparities in a wide range of poverty indicators have remained constant, suggesting a lack of political will over decades to tackle the root causes. Black and brown households have been hardest hit in every economic crisis, and taken the longest to recover,” said Moore.