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Food security during a pandemic and beyond: how research can support action

April 23, 2020

Introduction

Food security refers to the ability to access enough food for every member of one’s household at all times. National surveillance data show that overall, food security had been improving steadily since 2011, following the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession. Still, in 2018 – the last year for which data are available – over 11% of households in the U.S. were food insecure at some point during the year.

Now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread closures of businesses, workplaces, and schools, the food insecurity crisis has rapidly escalated across the country, creating new urgency around measurement and identification of those at greatest risk.

Sudden and skyrocketing unemployment has directly reduced the ability of millions of people to afford basic expenses, including food. Households with children, older adults, and people with disabilities, who were already at higher risk for food insecurity, are especially impacted now as closed schools, day care centers, and senior centers have eliminated a regular source of meals. Social distancing rules inhibit the ability of many to safely acquire food through their regular means; and while ordering groceries on-line is an option for some, not all states allow shoppers to use SNAP benefits on-line. Additionally, disrupted food supply chains and panic buying have led to empty shelves at supermarkets and distribution centers, further restricting food access, especially for shoppers with limited resources such as transportation. Based on historic and expected trends, food insecurity is projected to increase nationwide by 1.3 – 5.3 percentage points.

Putting Evidence into Practice

Federal, state, and local governments, service providers, and advocates are acting swiftly to address these challenging circumstances by augmenting existing strategies and mobilizing new resources. Now, and in the coming years, it remains essential to identify high-risk populations in each community (as these groups may shift or expand), monitor trends, and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions. Those implementing or evaluating social interventions of any kind can assist these efforts by:

Collecting data on food security. Even if food or nutrition is not a primary research or program aim, food security measures can provide important point-in-time estimates to help assess who is most vulnerable in a given population and guide resource allocation accordingly. Moreover, including these measures can improve the rigor of a study, because food security is related to a variety of social and economic conditions and can be an important confounder. Assessing food security in the context of interventions that target other social determinants of health can provide insight on how it impacts, or is impacted by, a complex web of factors.

Promoting collaboration between researchers and practitioners.  It is important for researchers, service providers, program administrators, and policymakers who are directly involved in food assistance programs to work together to design evaluations. Practitioners include those working at food banks, SNAP or WIC administrators, school food services, non-profit organizations, and advocacy groups (see examples under “Resources”). These stakeholders have firsthand knowledge about the information that is most needed for decision-making and when it is needed. They can help researchers understand the practical nuances of implementation, and offer guidance about the most useful research questions to ask and which approaches to use – such as whether to collect data from adults or children, at what time intervals, or in which settings.

Using validated survey tools. Whatever the approach or study context, researchers should carefully select data collection tools to help ensure valid and reliable estimates. Using standard tools also allows food insecurity measures to be compared across studies or populations. There are a variety of validated survey tools publicly available including:

 

Example Approaches

E4A and other RWJF research programs have funded several studies that assess circumstances related to food, but within the context of larger studies about interventions not directly related to food or nutrition. For example, studies on the effects of weatherization, wage increases, and stable scheduling for retail workers have included questions about food security or access as part of the demographic assessment of the study population. A study funded by Policies for Action assessed food security in the context of studying federal housing assistance. Systems for Action has funded studies on parents/caregivers of young children, Medicare beneficiaries and other older adults, and Medicaid patients in medical homes.

Conclusion

Safeguarding the food security of vulnerable groups should be a priority for all. Many studies evaluating social interventions in real world settings can be leveraged to collect data on food security, which can both strengthen a study design and offer more immediate uses in practice. Information about who is at risk across different communities and contexts, as well as other factors that impact access to food, can aid efforts to reduce food insecurity in both the near and long terms.

Resources

The following are examples of programs and organizations that provide direct food assistance to U.S. populations or that guide policy and decision-making about how food resources are allocated.

Food assistance programs:

-Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – administered by state agencies through local or county offices in each state.

-Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) – administered by state health departments and Indian Tribal Organizations through local agencies and nonprofits.

-Federal Child Nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and Summer Food Service Program, operated by county or school district administrators.

-Feeding America – the national network of food banks, consisting of 200 local food banks and 60,000 community food pantries.

-Meals on Wheels America – a national network of community organizations addressing senior isolation and hunger.

Other anti-hunger organizations:

-Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) – national nonprofit organization working to eradicate poverty-related hunger in the U.S.

-Share our Strength – advocacy organization running campaigns such as No Kid Hungry, focused on ending child hunger.

-Voices for Healthy Kids – engages local and national leaders around the country to improve or create equitable policies.

-State- or local-level groups focused on policies to improve regional food security, such as California Food Policy Advocates, D.C Hunger Solutions, or Texas Hunger Initiative.

-Healthy Eating Research – national program of RWJF that supports research on policy, systems, and environment strategies to promote healthy eating among children.

About the Author

May Lynn Tan, DrPH is Assistant Deputy Director for E4A. Throughout her career she has managed a variety of nutrition and food assistance initiatives and conducted research on child food insecurity and school meal programs.