Hunger After Crisis: Exploring Post-Pandemic Trends in Food Insecurity

image of hands and a virus

By Leeah Chang

Illustration by Junyue Ma


It is without a doubt that COVID-19 had major socioeconomic and health implications for the nation and the world. One of the pandemic’s most prominent effects was on food insecurity, particularly for certain ages and minority populations. Though it is a global problem, the matter of hunger is often an indicator of socioeconomic status  in the United States, particularly as it pertains to significant issues such as homelessness and lack of access to healthcare. In this regard, it is becoming increasingly evident that current midstream interventions in America, which focus on broader approaches for only specific vulnerable populations, are not sufficient to meet the various needs of a growing food-insecure population.

Food insecurity is and has been a prevalent and ongoing problem in America as were several other determinants of health at the time. It was drastically increased by the global pandemic with many already-food-insecure households being unable to obtain an income to support consistent food support when the work industry abruptly locked down for the national health crisis. Temporary federal aid in the form of a 15 percent increase in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits was extended to said households during this emergency period to provide financial support for obtaining essential nutrition.1 Many households benefited from the emergency benefits, including 88,000 Rhode Island households.2 While it may have helped sustain some households at that time, once the increased support was stripped away with federal legislation passed on September 30, 2021, it was incredibly difficult for families to adapt to increasing food and housing costs post-pandemic.1 Considering the state of Rhode Island, the reduction in food assistance had detrimental effects, with a 32 percent decrease in SNAP benefits to the state at the same time that there was an 11 percent and 14 percent increase in prices of food and housing/rent, respectively.2 This left families struggling to not only reenter the workforce for income but also keep up with an influx of increased essential living expenses. 

While it is true that the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic was greater in some areas of the U.S. over others—partially due to larger minority communities in certain states —national data collection via CPS-FSS (or Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement) shows that food insecurity levels were on average 2.12 times what they were prior to 2020. Across the board, food insecurity rates post-pandemic experienced a dramatic increase in every state; the most dramatic changes being found in Georgia and Rhode Island, both of which saw food insecurity rates more than triple.3 In Rhode Island, the trends of food security indicate that an increase in the percentage of food insecure Rhode Islanders is correlated with nationwide socioeconomic conditions such as the Great Recession in 2008 and more recently in 2020 with the COVID pandemic.4 The recovery time from a high percentage of food-insecure households to a lower one following the Great Recession was over 4 years, so there is an indication of an eventual decrease in Rhode Island’s current elevated food-insecure population. 

 Furthermore, one of the most common health disparities caused by limited access to food is that the highest percentages of households experiencing food insecurity are Black and Hispanic families. Data from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank in 2023 found that communities of color were still struggling post-pandemic with both financial and health stability.2 Additionally, of all BIPOC (not White) individuals in the state, almost half of them live in low-income/low-access Rhode Island neighborhoods.4 This goes to show that not only are minority populations more at-risk for food insecurity, but they are also more likely to have lower quality housing and overall decreased access to grocery stores, schools, green spaces, and likely healthcare establishments. The burden of hunger in Rhode Island falls heavily on the Latino and Black households, with 2023 survey results noting that 51 percent of Latino and 48 percent of Black households were food insecure compared to only 23 percent of White households.5 Some of these disparities may be rooted in cultural differences, especially seeing as how families of color are more likely to reside in multi-generational households that include grandparents and children. Both age classifications are considered to be dependents with respect to retirement, unemployment, and simply the matter of age; hence, there are varying factors in play that are contributing to a greater burden of food insecurity for these minority families. 

Furthermore, a more overlooked health disparity lies in the worsened effects of food insecurity that exist for women, especially mothers—and even more prominently among mothers of color. A cross-sectional study for women via a national survey found that there was approximately a 34 percent increase in perceived food insecurity from July to August 2020 (post-pandemic) compared to pre-pandemic. The study went on to discover a greater odds ratio for Hispanic mothers over non-Hispanic mothers, indicating that even within the subset of women and children, the prevalence of vulnerability to food insecurity was greater for women of color.6 It is evident that regardless of where women live, they are at high risk of experiencing hunger; while geographic regions of the U.S. may vary in the prevalence of food insecurity, it is a fact that in all these regions, there are food-insecure women. Additionally, this vulnerability was found to present negative health consequences for expecting mothers and mothers in postpartum, especially regarding appropriate nutrition and well-being of newborns.7,8 

Proper nutrition is one of the most important determinants of a healthy pregnancy, which ties into both the well-being of the mother and the baby. Thus, food insecurity at any point during pregnancy can expose mothers to an increased risk of pregnancy complications and birth defects.8 Food insecurity can present itself as simply a lack of access to healthy food, which often results in individuals eating highly processed, low-nutrient foods that are less expensive.7 This type of diet is incredibly damaging to pregnant women—who are supposed to be consuming a lot of nutrient-dense foods–when this type of eating was coupled with the stress and financial uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to being at a heightened risk for pregnancy and delivery complications, there were also increased nutritional deficiencies that were found in children born during/or immediately following the pandemic. Then, following childbirth, food-insecure mothers were determined to be less likely to be able to consistently breastfeed during the baby’s critical development time, which led to worsened health outcomes from childhood: namely, childhood obesity and/or signs of malnutrition through early adulthood.9

Alternatively, one of the most driven national initiatives for combating food insecurity is based on assisting younger individuals, namely kids from impoverished and/or food-insecure living situations. This is commonly known as the “reduced-price or free lunch” system as part of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in which school systems across the country adhere to alleviating some of the financial burden that parents face at home to put food on the table. Congress allowed for a continuation of this through the pandemic. Still, the program officially expired in June 2022.2 For many states, the end of the federal program did not pose a huge dilemma in some states like Massachusetts, in which they increased free meal participation for students under a new state-funded plan.5 Rhode Island adopted a tiered version, but the problem lies in the fact that with increased inflation of basic necessities but a static federal poverty line, it is becoming more difficult for families to qualify for RI free meals. These families are not financially stable enough to afford school meals but are also not financially unstable enough to participate in the free lunch program; this has led to a sharp 12 percent decrease in the school meal program participation in general since June 2022.2,5

Moreover, the pandemic further aggravated many of the nation’s issues regarding supporting individuals who are at higher risk for food insecurity. An integral consideration when crafting and implementing these efforts is the targeted at-risk populations, namely children and seniors on a generalized level. On any scale, the proportion of food-insecure individuals from these two age groups (< 18 years and > 60 years) is highest within any racial/ethnic demographic.7 While extensive small-scale efforts by various regional organizations have been formed with the central mission of reducing the number of food-insecure individuals and families, hunger remains. Following the pandemic, local food banks have become more specialized in addressing local food insecurity as a part of the national strategy, and most of these establishments are heavily run as non-profits and/or are dependent on community volunteerism.3 In this regard, the U.S. takes a more gradual approach towards prevention and support efforts across the nation to essentially make each of these local food banks responsible for the households of a certain region as part of Feeding America protocols. In addition, local food banks like the Rhode Island Community Food Bank have become the greatest advocates for increased federal assistance and legal action to support food insecurity in their respective communities and regions.5 

Relating to efforts being made by food banks, other local stakeholders in food insecurity include government agencies such as Women Infant & Children (WIC) state offices and state-specific Health and Human Services Departments that propose new policies or feeding programs that are tailor-made for at-risk demographic groups whether that be through notable services like Meals on Wheels or lesser-known ones like Backpack Buddy.10 Additionally, donation programs at child/youth & family services like YMCA or even faith-based organizations are critical for ongoing community support. The issue of food insecurity is not only an issue in and of itself but is also a social determinant of health—in other words, a standard for health equity across various socio-demographic groups.8 A recent study by Pak et al. (2021) conducted with older adults found that there is an association between food insecurity and allostatic load in terms of how it can lead to more health-related problems and “increased morbidity risk” when it comes to chronic conditions.11 Furthermore, as noted in the 2023 study on COVID-19 impact by Azevedo et al., there is also a heightened risk of delayed child development and “nutritional deficiencies in mothers and children” caused by food insecurity during pregnancy.6 The parallels between various age group health risks delineate the unfortunate reality that food insecurity can have detrimental health effects on individuals at any point from birth to death. Thus, it is essential that going forward, policymakers work with not only the local leaders in food insecurity alleviation (in Rhode Island and nationally), but also with local health and hospital systems in order to approach the issue of food insecurity from several upstream regulatory outlooks. 

Ultimately, mothers, children, seniors, and minorities are all among the groups that have become increasingly more vulnerable to the negative effects of food insecurity, and the extent of said vulnerability was only further aggravated by the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. National initiatives have commonly been integral for promoting nationwide local efforts. Still, considering new socioeconomic and political issues that arose post-pandemic, the needs of a growing food-insecure population are being unmet. With the most instances of food insecurity being present in single-parent households, households with dependents (children or seniors), and—above all—minority households, there is a clear public health inequity that is affecting appropriate nutrition in various age and social groups, and subsequently is impacting the health and wellbeing of these individuals and families. 



  1. SNAP Benefits – COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond | Food and Nutrition Service.
  2. Rhode Island Community Food Bank. 2023 Status Report on Hunger in Rhode Island. RICFB. November 2023.
  3. Schanzenbach D, Pitts A. State-by-State Estimates of Food Insufficiency and Insecurity: Institute for Policy Research – Northwestern University. Institute for Policy Research Northwestern. Published June 10, 2020.
  4. Food Access and Security – Rhode Island Food Policy Council. Data Dashboard. Published 2022.
  5. Uprise RI Staff. Hunger in Rhode Island Reaches Record Highs – Uprise RI. Uprise RI Public Services. Published November 21, 2023.
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