Research shows pandemic-induced food insecurity on the rise in Arizona

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Food insecurity is on the rise in Arizona as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among Hispanic households, households with children and households who experienced a job disruption, according to a recent survey conducted by researchers at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions in collaboration with the National Food Access and COVID Research Team (NFACT).

The researchers surveyed more than 600 households in Arizona between July 1 and Aug. 10, asking questions about participants’ perceived worries and challenges related to food access, as well as about behavioral changes and strategies adopted since the pandemic, in order to get a better understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on food security in Arizona.

Two briefs detailing their findings are available to view on the researchers’ website. In addition to ASU, the National Food Access and COVID Research Team includes the University of Vermont, Johns Hopkins and the University of Arizona. Their research seeks to examine the pandemic’s impact on food access, food security and food systems across local, state, regional and national levels.

The Arizona survey was made possible by the College of Health Solutions’ COVID-19 grant program, launched in the spring to fund research into such areas as the pandemic’s effect on opioid use, electronic health surveillance, food access and security, and more.

“When COVID happened, there was so much momentum at the College of Health Solutions at ASU to learn more about how the pandemic was affecting peoples’ lives,” said Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, a professor of nutrition at the college and an author on both of the briefs. “Given our research team's focus on food security and food access, we felt we could contribute the most in these areas.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Researchers measured food insecurity using the department’s validated household food security survey module. Respondents who answered affirmatively to two or more of the food insecurity questions were considered food insecure. Respondents who were food insecure both in the 12 months prior to the pandemic (March 2019–March 2020) and since the pandemic (since March 2020) were classified as persistently food insecure. Those who were food secure pre-COVID-19 but became food insecure since the pandemic were classified as newly food insecure. The food secure category includes households who were food secure since COVID-19, regardless of their food security status prior to the pandemic.

According to Francesco Acciai, a research scholar at the College of Health Solutions and lead author on the briefs, “The main issue is food affordability. Most households are concerned about the cost of food, even those that are not currently food insecure.”

Despite this, researchers were surprised to see little change in participation in food assistance programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). They contend that could be due to different lengths of time being compared before and after the pandemic as well as certain barriers associated with obtaining assistance, including administrative and transport issues, social and personal values and uncertainty about eligibility for the program.

“Unemployment insurance benefits became available during the pandemic, and were counted towards one’s income,” Ohri-Vachaspati explained. “So some households, particularly smaller households, may have reached a threshold where they were no longer eligible for assistance. While these temporary boosts to income are extremely useful, counting them as income for calculating eligibility may keep some households from getting access to food assistance programs.”

Key findings of the study include:

  • Almost 1 in 3 (32%) Arizona households experienced food insecurity since COVID-19 — a 28% increase from the year prior to the pandemic, when the food insecurity rate was 25%.
  • Hispanic households, households with children and households who experienced a job disruption were more likely to be both persistently and newly food insecure.
  • The majority of Arizona households were worried about food becoming too expensive. They also expressed concerns about availability of food and access to food assistance programs, as well as food safety.
  • Most households reported having changed some of their food-related habits. Behavioral changes included spending more time cooking at home, throwing away less food than normal and keeping a two-week supply of groceries in the household.
  • About 1 in 8 households bought food on credit (14%), borrowed money from friends and family for food (12%), and/or received food from food pantries (13%) during the pandemic.

Acciai said the team is gearing up for another round of data collection that will examine survey participants’ responses to questions about food security from July to now, to see if anything has changed compared with the first half of the year.

Their overall goal, Ohri-Vachaspati added, is to reach out to advocacy groups and decision-makers within Arizona with their findings in order to inform future policies.

“Though the USDA was very prompt in trying to deal with the COVID situation, there are still challenges,” she said. “And some of the assistance being offered needs to be extended so that we can try and keep people food secure during these very difficult times.”

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay