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July 24, 2020
Here’s what we know about COVID-19’s impact on food security in Massachusetts

Massachusetts is feeling the far-reaching health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. Among the greatest concerns is the loss of security of many residents basic needs such as food and housing. But for some groups of people, the impact is far greater than others. 

On April 23rd, the US Census Bureau began collecting data on a weekly basis for a Household Pulse Survey, which included several survey questions about food sufficiency and utilization of free food resources. Project Bread has been analyzing this data to clearly understand just how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting food insecurity in Massachusetts, how people experiencing food insecurity are seeking assistance, and who is being disproportionately effected to inform and advocate for equitable policy recommendations, and our programmatic and systemic hunger crisis response. Here is what we know. 

Food insecurity peaked in early May, but remains far higher than pre-pandemic levels


We won’t have food insecurity numbers from the USDA for 2019 until September 2020, so the best we know going into this pandemic is that in 2018, 9.3% of households in Massachusetts were food insecure. According to Feeding America, the rate of food insecurity for children in Massachusetts was slightly higher at 10.1% in 2018.

The early days of the pandemic

In May, the economic impact of the pandemic hit hard, and with state-wide closures and layoffs, food insecurity skyrocketed to 23%— nearly a quarter of all Massachusetts households worried about being able to afford enough food for themselves or their families.

Settling in to new normal

Following the Family First Coronavirus Response Act Act in late March, Massachusetts quickly moved to implement emergency SNAP allotments (providing all households receiving SNAP the maximum benefit amount) and Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) to provide $400 per child who normally receives free or reduced-price school meals. As individuals and families adjusted to the pandemic and these program benefits reaching households, food insecurity dropped slightly during the month of June from its peak in early May. But with 17.3% of households and 19.8% of households with children reportedly struggling to meet their basic need of food, the severity of the pandemics impact on food insecurity has undeniably led to a continued hunger crisis in Massachusetts.

Preparing for a new surge in hunger

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act expanded unemployment compensation by $600 per week, but pandemic unemployment compensation expires at the end of this month. If Congress does not act, many more Massachusetts households will be facing hunger next month. This will hit Massachusetts particularly hard as the Commonwealth has the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 17.6%. 

Certain groups of people are being disproportionately impacted

People of color

In June, food insecurity was impacting nearly 1 in 8 white households versus over 1 in 5 Black households and and nearly in 1 in 3 Latinx households. These numbers are even greater when you look at households with children. In June, TWICE as many Black and Latinx households with children were struggling with hunger as compared to white households with children.

People with lower levels of education, reportedly poor health, and also unable to pay rent last month

We know most households dealing with hunger are also dealing with other challenges:

  • Nearly 1 out of 3 (32.3%) of respondents without a high school degree lived in a food insecure household compared to 1 in 12 (8.7%) with at least a Bachelor's degree.
  • One third of respondents reporting fair (32.8%) or poor (36.3%) health, reported living in a food insecure household.
  • Over 1 in 3 (37.3%) respondents who were unable to pay rent or mortgage last month, also lived in a household with food insecurity.

The Household Pulse Survey asks about food sufficiency and scarcity based off of the question: "In the last 7 days, which of these statements best describes the food eaten in your household?" Respondents were able to select "enough of the kind of food (I/we) wanted to eat", "enough, but not always the kid of food (I/we) wanted to eat", "sometimes not enough to eat", or "often not enough eat".
With the help of Diane Schanzenbach and Abigail Pitts at the Northwestern University Institute of Politics, Project Bread converted the responses to this respondent-level question to be analogous to the USDA household food insecurity number from 2018. Click here to read their methodology.

Author(s): Project Bread

Filed under: Informing Public Policy, Get the Facts, News and Events, Community Solutions