Some 7.6% of households with children, nearly 3 million families, were unable at times to provide adequate, nutritious food for their kids last year, compared to 6.5% in 2019, the report found.
Also, more children faced very low food security, meaning they were hungry, skipped a meal or did not eat for a day because there was not enough money for food. Some 0.8% households with children, or 322,000 families, were in this situation last year, compared to 0.6% the prior year.
Among families with children, the entire household also suffered higher rates of food insecurity last year. Some 14.8%, or 5.6 million households, were in this situation last year, up from 13.6% in 2019.
Overall, however, the share of households contending with food insecurity remained the same in 2020 as the year before at 10.5%, or 13.8 million households, according to the report, which is released annually.
The pandemic also sparked a substantial increase in federal nutrition assistance and charitable aid. Congress bolstered the food stamp and other benefit programs and millions more Americans turned to food pantries for help.
The USDA report does not provide an analysis of how this spike in aid may have affected food insecurity, but advocates say it helped keep hunger at bay.
By contrast, food insecurity spiked in the years after the Great Recession, rising above 14% of households from 2008 through 2014, then sliding back to pre-crisis levels in 2019. The federal government’s response to that economic crisis was not as comprehensive.
Not every group in the US fared as well in the pandemic, however.
The food insecurity gap between Black and White households increased. Some 21.7% of Black, non-Hispanic-led households faced food insecurity last year, up from 19.1% a year earlier. But the share of White, non-Hispanic-led households in this situation slid to 7.1%, down from 7.9% in 2019.
Insecurity increased in the South but declined in the Midwest. It also fell for women living alone and men living alone.
Spike in need for help
The pandemic fueled a surge in need across the nation, as millions of Americans lost their jobs and their ability to pay for food for themselves and their families.
Some 60 million people — or 1 in 5 US residents — received charitable food assistance in 2020, an increase of 50% from the year before, said Emily Engelhard, managing director of research at Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization.
Lawmakers raised enrollees’ food stamp allotment to the maximum amount for their family size early in the pandemic, and then increased benefits by 15%, or about $27 per month per person, in late December.
“We have seen how the pandemic has exacerbated the nation’s already growing hunger crisis,” Guardia said. “If not for the federal nutrition programs, the data released today would be even more troubling.”
Demand remains elevated in 2021
Though the economy has improved and more Americans are working, requests for food assistance is still higher than it was prior to the pandemic, according to Feeding America.
More than half of food banks are reporting demand either increasing or demand holding steady in July, compared to the previous month, according to the group’s most recent survey of its members.
Widespread coverage of food insecurity and of the increased usage of food pantries destigmatized the need to seek assistance to address hunger, Engelhard said.
“That really helped people feel more comfortable that they could turn to the charitable food system for help,” Engelhard said.
Congress’ enhancement of the child tax credit for 2021, which is expected to cut child poverty nearly in half this year, should also help ease food insecurity among children this year, said Dan Miller, an associate professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work.