The Intersection

Access to Food

April 1, 2020

Updated: May 27, 2021

Millions of students across the country rely on school for at least one meal a day – and in some cases receive three meals a day from their school. When schools are fully remote or reopen under hybrid models of instruction, what can policymakers do to ensure children are still receiving the food they need?

The Challenge

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role schools played in providing food and nourishment for children and families grew significantly, as the adverse public health and economic effects of the pandemic have contributed to growing rates of food insecurity; in fact, national rates of food insecurity in households with children doubled from May-October 2020, with communities of color being most affected. To respond to this growing threat to the welfare of children and families, policymakers and leaders in the public and private sector must have a strong understanding of the food insecurity landscape so that effective and targeted relief can be provided to those families in the immediate- and long-term. Additionally, policymakers and leaders must find ways to provide relief for food insecure families as summer break approaches.

Food Insecurity in the United States

For the past year, public and private organizations have been closely tracking the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on rates of food insecurity, on both a national and state-by-state scale. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 35 million people, including nearly 11 million children, lived in a food insecure household; these numbers represented a consistent downward trend in food insecurity, yet the current crisis reversed improvements made over the past decade since the Great Recession.

In March 2021, Feeding America updated a series of projections of how rates of food insecurity in the United States would look compared to previous years, projecting overall food insecurity rates, changes in the number of people in food insecure households, the total number of people in food insecure households, and the percentage increase in the food insecurity rate. The following tables incorporate those metrics and provide both national and regional projections.

 National Projections of Food Insecurity for 2020 and 2021

Overall 2021 (Projection) 2020 (Projection) 2019 (Actuals)
Annual Food Insecurity Rate (Overall) 12.9% 13.9% 10.9%
Number of Food Insecure People (Overall) 42 million 45 million 35.2 million
 Ratio (Overall) 1 in 8 1 in 7 1 in 9
Annual Food Insecurity Rate (Children) 17.9% 19.9% 14.6%
Number of Food Insecure People (Children) 13 million 15 million 10.7 million
Ratio (Children) 1 in 6 1 in 5 1 in 7

Ten States with the Highest 2021 Food Insecurity Projections Among Children

Ranking State 2021 2020 (Ranking) 2019 (Ranking)
1 Louisiana 26.0% 27.4% (1) 23.0% (1)
2 Hawaii 24.6% 27.0% (2) 19.3% (9)
3 New Mexico 23.7% 26.2% (4) 22.0% (3)
4 Texas 23.6% 24.0% (7) 19.6% (7)
5 Nevada 23.0% 26.7% (3) 17.7% (12)
6 Arkansas 22.9% 24.4% (6) 21.4% (4)
7 Oklahoma 22.5% 23.8% (8) 20.4% (6)
8 Mississippi 22.2% 24.9% (5) 22.2% (2)
9 Alabama 20.4% 23.3% (9) 20.8% (5)
Arizona 20.4% 21.2% (16) 17.6% (14)

In addition to measuring food insecurity, organizations such as Feeding America are producing projections of very low food security (VLFS), which is a more severe range of food insecurity involving reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns. 70 percent of households falling in this category of food security report seven or more of the following statements surveyed annually by the USDA:

  • Reporting having worried that their food would run out before they got money to buy more.
  • Reporting that the food they bought just did not last, and they did not have money to get more.
  • Reporting that they could not afford to eat balanced meals.
  • Reporting that an adult had cut the size of meals or skipped meals because there was not enough money for food, and reporting that this had occurred in 3 or more months.
  • Reporting that they had eaten less than they felt they should because there was not enough money for food.
  • Reporting that they had been hungry but did not eat because they could not afford enough food.
  • Reporting having lost weight because they did not have enough money for food.
  • Reporting that an adult did not eat for a whole day because there was not enough money for food, and reporting that this had occurred in 3 or more months.

The following table and map show the highest rates of VLFS in the country, as well as what rates of VLFS look like throughout the country.

Ranking State 2021 2020 (Ranking) 2019 (Ranking)
1 Oklahoma 8.4% 8.8% (2) 7.6% (1)
2 Nevada 8.1% 9.3% (1) 6.3% (5)
3 Hawaii 8.1% 8.8% (2) 5.9% (8)
4 Louisiana 7.8% 8.2% (5) 6.7% (3)
5 Maine 7.7% 8.4% (4) 7.1% (2)
6 New Mexico 7.2% 7.9% (6) 6.5% (4)
7 Arkansas 6.6% 7.0% (7) 6.0% (6)
8 Texas 6.5% 6.6% (14) 5.1% (18)
9 Arizona 6.4% 6.6% (14) 5.4% (14)
9 Maryland 6.4% 6.6% (14) 5.5% (12)

Covering the Shortfall: Taking Advantage of Federal Relief

Eliminating food insecurity in the United States can be done, but it will take herculean efforts and investments to accomplish that task. Currently, the food budget shortfall in the United States is over $19 billion, and while covering the cost to close this gap will be immense, federal programs are available for state and local policymakers to take advantage of. For example, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is a popular federal assistance program that provides temporary help for individuals in need of supplemental money to buy food until, economically speaking, those individuals can provide food adequately for themselves and their families. In 2015 alone, SNAP lifted 4.6 million Americans out of poverty, including two million children and 366,000 seniors. SNAP is a key federal program not only for providing nutritional assistance for eligible recipients; the program also has positive effects on economic activity. Economists estimate that for every dollar redeemed by a household through SNAP, about $1.70 in economic activity is generated. The estimate can be seen in previous literature confirming that for every $1 billion added to SNAP, between 8,900 and 17,000 jobs were created, and for every $1 billion cut from SNAP, over 11,000 jobs would be eliminated.

Policymakers at the state and local level must also take advantage of federal relief coming in via the American Rescue Plan (ARP). The ARP invests $12 billion in nutrition assistance, and those investments include the following actions:

  • An extension of the 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits through September 2021, amounting to $28 more per recipient, per month, or more than $100 per month for a family of four. The extension will provide an estimated $3.5 billion in relief directly to over 41 million people.
  • Support for states as they respond to increased demand for SNAP benefits with an additional $1.135 billion in administrative resources for states over three years, without requiring states to match those funds.
  • An extension of the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program, which will provide food dollars to families to buy groceries to make up for meals missed when schools are closed. The P-EBT program delivered over $6.7 billion in food benefits through June 2020 when schools were closed. The Act goes further and ensures that States can provide P-EBT benefits for the full duration of the pandemic, including during the summer.
  • Funding for meals for young adults in emergency shelters via participation in the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

Policy Considerations

Legislate methods to use local farmers to provide food in high-need areas. For example, the Senate of Virginia’s recently enacted SB1188 is a model for policymakers seeking to utilize state farmers to address food insecurity. The bill called for the establishment of the Virginia Agriculture Food Assistance Program for Virginia farmers and food producers to donate, sell, or otherwise provide agriculture products to charitable food assistance organizations.

Partner with school districts to provide meals for students over the summer. Partnerships between local food banks, school districts, and local restaurants/small businesses will be critical for serving students from food insecure households. Tracking where these partnerships are taking hold will be critical, too. Fortunately, the USDA tracks where summer meals can be found throughout the country, showing each site’s dates of operation and times when each meal will be served.

As recommended by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, advocate for the strengthening of the federal safety net. This can be done, for example, by pushing for the expansion of SNAP benefits for families in need.

Support mobile food services. In areas of rural isolation and lack of transportation services, develop creative strategies to get food to residents, like VeggieVanGo in Vermont, to bring food directly to residents or central locations within communities.

Support collective efforts. Coalition-building among stakeholders, private businesses, and organizations with experience in combating food insecurity can be of use as policymakers and stakeholders identify the unique needs of communities in addressing the issue.

Provide more food-centered programming for older and disconnected youth. Young individuals who do not attend school or are disengaged from school-based programming are often overlooked, and policymakers should work to get a good idea of the proportion of their states’ youth populations that fall into this category. Much work has been done around engaging older youth, especially teenagers. When the Urban Institute studied efforts to address food insecurity in Vermont, the organization convened a focus group that included teenagers to discuss food-centered programming. An important takeaway from this project was how teenagers pointed out the importance of dealing with a stigma, as accepting food services, many pointed out, can be sensitive. Local youth in this group noted that teenagers may be more likely to participate in food-related programming if it was embedded in larger programs, such as recreational activities. With individuals and communities having a better sense of how to engage one another in a safe manner during the pandemic, policymakers could fund these programs for the purpose of engaging more youth.

Additional Reading

Evidence-Based Strategies to End Childhood Food Insecurity and Hunger in Vermont (The Urban Institute)

Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

The Impact of Coronavirus on Food Insecurity (Feeding America)

The Impact of Coronavirus on Local Food Insecurity (Feeding America)

Children’s food insecurity increasing during COVID-19 pandemic (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health)

Measuring Household Experiences during the Coronavirus Pandemic (United States Census Bureau)






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