More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, 1.6 million adults in Massachusetts are still struggling to get enough to eat.
A new survey conducted by the Greater Boston Food Bank has found that many of the households experiencing hunger at the outset of the pandemic are still food-insecure, and many more are not accessing available programs that could help. People of color and families with children are still disproportionately experiencing food insecurity, according to the survey.
The findings serve as a stark reminder that even as COVID-19 vaccinations become more widespread and things return to some semblance of “normal,” those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic will have a long path to economic recovery.
Between last October and January, the Greater Boston Food Bank surveyed over 3,000 adults in the region, and found that only one out of three people experiencing food insecurity at the time were actually using food pantries. The finding was startling to researchers, who have seen unprecedented demand at the food banks over the past year and no signs that it is waning. Last month, for example, was the food bank’s busiest month to date, with over 9.8 million meals distributed throughout the region.
The number of adults estimated to be facing hunger — 1.6 million — is significantly higher than the number reported last year by Feeding America, which estimated the figure at 1 million Massachusetts residents. At the time, Feeding America found that the state saw the highest percentage increase in people needing help accessing food in the country, with a 59 percent increase in residents overall and a 102 percent increase in children.
The food bank conducted its latest survey to get a better sense of who needs help, and who isn’t getting it.
“We really wanted also to understand the gaps in access more than just the prevalence” of food insecurity, said Dr. Lauren Fiechtner, the director of nutrition in the division of gastroenterology and general academic pediatrics at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and Greater Boston Food Bank’s senior adviser of health and research. “It’s really focusing on, who are we missing and how can we better serve them?”
The findings were unnerving to Fiechtner and her colleagues: Nearly half of the adults surveyed who didn’t have enough to eat were not accessing assistance programs like food pantries or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And while many knew about such programs, stigmas and a sense of self-reliance kept them from wanting to use them. While a significant number of people who accessed the programs were thankful for the aid, many felt their needs were not being met.
Fifty-four percent of those experiencing food insecurity had not signed up for SNAP, despite the fact that a majority of them — 71 percent — said they knew about the program and how to access it. But many worried they were ineligible and were concerned about what paperwork they might need to share.
The survey found that 73 percent of respondents who were not using SNAP said they wanted to support themselves instead of relying on public assistance. Advocates for food insecurity programs argue these findings demonstrate a need for public awareness campaigns that share details on food support services and work to reduce the stigmas.
People of color saw the greatest increase in food insecurity, year over year: 58 percent of Latinx adults, 45 percent of Black adults, and 26 percent of Asian adults reported that they were experiencing hunger in 2020, while just 24 percent of white adults reported the same.
The survey also found that food insecurity rates were highest among adults with children: 42 percent of households with children were experiencing hunger, and the use of SNAP in those households had nearly doubled its rate from 2019. Many other parents stressed the additional assistance from the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer cards — or P-EBT cards — also offered significant support while school meal programs were not operating.
“As a pediatrician, I was really shocked. I knew that my families I take care of were struggling, but I had no idea that it had increased to 42 percent,” said Fiechtner. “It’s pretty amazing, when you start to think, that almost one out of two kids that could be coming in my clinic could be suffering from food insecurities.”