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The Impact of COVID-19 on Food Insecurity in Los Angeles County: April to May 2020

July 27, 2020

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The Challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a crisis in the U.S. food system, with mounting evidence of widespread food insecurity. Food insecurity refers to disruptions in food access and regular eating because of limited money or other resources. Food insecurity consistently leads to negative health outcomes: For children, it has been linked to higher risk for asthma, mental health issues and worse overall health; for adults, it is associated with obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression and poor sleep.

Under a strategic partnership with Los Angeles County’s Emergency Food Security Branch, our research team sought to understand: What are the initial impacts of COVID-19 on food security levels in L.A. County? Who is most at risk of food insecurity? 

Our Research

Our research used L.A. County data from USC’s Understanding Coronavirus in America tracking survey, administered by USC Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research, to understand food insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis. We found that rates of food insecurity in Los Angeles County during COVID-19 are unprecedented, and substantially higher than before the pandemic. 39.5% of low-income households experienced food insecurity at some time between April and May 2020. More than 1 in 4 (28.9%) of all L.A. County households experienced food insecurity from April to May; i.e., 955,466 households. 

The characteristics of those who experienced food insecurity from April to May differs compared to those who were food secure during this period. The figure below presents a profile of the differences in some of the characteristics between ‘food secure’ and ‘food insecure’ households.

Overall, the majority of people who experienced food insecurity were female (57%) and Hispanic/Latinx (59%). One-third (36%) were 18 to 30 years old, and almost half (44%) had school-age children. Half (47%) had household incomes below the federal poverty line (<100% of the FPL), and more than one-quarter (27%) were unemployed. 

We found that several factors are independently associated with significantly higher odds of being food insecure during COVID-19. We tested several risk factors (including gender, age, household income, education level, employment status, household size, and others) and found that the following characteristics predicted food insecurity risk: being unemployed and having a household income below the FPL; being 18 to 30 years old; having a smaller social network; and contracting COVID-19. 

The research also found that only a small fraction of people who experienced food insecurity in April or May were getting food assistance, even though a substantial proportion were likely eligible for government food assistance based off of their early 2020 income. Of the people who experienced food insecurity during this time, 20.1% were receiving SNAP/CalFresh (also known as food stamps) and 11.7% used a food pantry as a source of food.

Click here to read more about the findings and research methodology

Next Steps

Our team is continuing to look at changes in L.A.’s food distribution and access landscape to analyze food insecurity during the pandemic. We will study where residents are getting their food, how far they have to travel to get food, if they are getting food delivered, how easy or hard it is for them to access food in their local neighborhoods, and if receiving different types of food assistance reduces the risk of experiencing food insecurity in the long-term. We will also study how the proximity of residences to various food outlets affected food insecurity and what the geographic distribution of food outlets will look like in the context of a changing economy. We plan to release additional reports, including July 2020 data, throughout the summer and into the fall.