Almost 15% of U.S. households and nearly 18% of households with children reported food insecurity at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey conducted via social media by researchers at the NYU School of Global Public Health. The results, published in Nutrition Journal, illustrate how the pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity, even among social media users who are more affluent than the general population.
Before the pandemic, approximately 11 percent of households in the United States were food insecure, lacking consistent access to enough food, both quality and quantity, to lead active and healthy lives.
“Food security isn’t just about putting calories in our bodies, it’s also about what we eat – and it’s high-calorie, low-nutrient foods that are generally cheap and affordable. So while food insecurity can lead to hunger, over time it can also lead to obesity and other related metabolic disturbances, ”said Niyati Parekh, professor of public health nutrition at the NYU School of Global Public Health and lead author of the study.
The pandemic has dramatically altered our food landscape, with high unemployment producing long queues at food banks, disruptions in supply chains leaving shelves empty, and blockages prompting some consumers to stock up on groceries. long shelf life. Additionally, school closures have made it harder for the 30 million children who depend on the National School Lunch program to access cheap or free meals.
Using social media to measure food insecurity
To understand the impact of COVID-19 on food insecurity at the start of the pandemic, NYU researchers created and administered an online survey in mid-April 2020, recruiting participants through Facebook and Instagram. They surveyed more than 5,600 adults nationwide, 25 percent of whom had children at home, to rate their food insecurity using a six-item questionnaire developed by the US Department of Agriculture.
The researchers found that 14.7% of participants reported having low or very low food security in their household; this figure rose to 17.5 percent among households with children. Those who were unemployed, had less than a bachelor’s degree, and had lower incomes were more likely to be food insecure. Living in urban versus rural areas was not associated with food insecurity.
“Compared to the general US population, our sample of social media users was predominantly white and had higher levels of education and income. Nonetheless, our results illustrate an increase in food insecurity at the onset of the pandemic, especially among families with children, ”Parekh said.
Address food insecurity with the help of technology
Researchers are calling for short and long-term approaches to tackle food insecurity, including policy changes like a further expansion of food stamps. They are also developing an innovative tool to prevent leftover food from going in the trash and instead, channeling it to families in need.
“Studies suggest that about a third of all food in the world is wasted, especially nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables and dairy,” Parekh said. “How can we divert food, especially perishables, from waste and redirect it to those who are food insecure? “
Parekh and his colleagues at NYU’s Public Health Nutrition Research Group are creating a mobile app called “Food2Share,” designed as a digital marketplace to connect local restaurants with food insecure people. Once the app launches, people will be able to claim food from local restaurants willing to provide free or heavily discounted food donated by other customers. The prototype of the application is described in the annual journal of the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition.