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

September 23, 2020

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The Challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, leaving in its wake major economic, social, and health crises. As our last report published on July 27, 2020 documented, almost one million households in Los Angeles County experienced food insecurity between early April and early May 2020. Food insecurity can have negative impacts on children and adults mental and physical health. It is a state that people can transition in and out of, and is often triggered by changes in employment, income, health, and mental health. These are all risk factors that have been heightened by the pandemic and factors that pose serious risks to the food security, health, and well-being of Angelenos. 

Under a strategic partnership with Los Angeles County’s Emergency Food Security Branch, our research team has continued to track the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food insecurity in Los Angeles County. We’ve sought to understand the factors that continue to put people at risk for food insecurity as well as the factors that may have helped people become food secure over the past four months.

Our Research

Following our last report, our research team evaluated the state of food insecurity in L.A. County several months into the pandemic and examined the impact of assistance programs as well as ongoing barriers to food security. Our research used newly available July 2020 data from USC Dornsife’s Understanding Coronavirus in America tracking survey to understand food insecurity among adults (18 years and older) during the COVID-19 crisis. Outlined in the report are the following six key findings: 

  1. Between April and July 2020, 1 in 4 L.A. County households experienced food insecurity. That’s an estimated 873,000 households, making current levels of food insecurity in L.A. County much higher than pre-pandemic levels. 
  2. The major risk factors for food insecurity during the pandemic include (i) having a low household income, (ii) being unemployed, (iii) being 18-50 years old, and (iv) being a single parent. The profile of people most impacted by food insecurity is depicted in the figure here:
  3. These unprecedented rates of food insecurity are improving, but remain significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels. Food insecurity in L.A. County peaked in April-May 2020 and has since dropped by almost two thirds in June-July 2020. This is a promising shift, but 10% of all households remain food insecure in June-July. The majority of people who remain food insecure are low-income, female, Latinx, and/or 18-40 years old. Over one-third are unemployed.
  4. Food and financial assistance programs appear to help adults transition from food insecurity to food security. For instance, households that received CalFresh benefits, also known as SNAP, were more likely to transition from being food insecure to food secure during the pandemic. This parallels a 20% uptick in use of CalFresh benefits in L.A. County since the pandemic began, suggesting CalFresh likely helped with the decline of food insecurity levels seen in July.
  5. Higher-income households rarely experience food insecurity, but the coronavirus crisis has changed this. Nearly 1-in-5 households that experienced food insecurity during the pandemic weren’t low-income. Almost 14% had annual incomes between $60,000 and $100,000 and nearly 6% had incomes of $100,000 or greater.
  6. Lastly, we found that people who experienced food insecurity during the pandemic had unhealthy changes to their diet. In particular, diet quality declined the most for people who have remained food insecure through July. This has important implications for issues of food and health inequity, and could increase diet-related diseases in low-income communities.

Impact & Next Steps

These research findings underscore the importance of safety net programs for the health and well-being of L.A. County’s most vulnerable communities during times of crisis. The findings will inform L.A. County’s ongoing efforts to raise awareness of financial and food assistance resources for residents, as well as the development of a COVID Food Assistance Grant Program; visit https://covid19.lacounty.gov/food/ for more information.

Our team will continue to track changing food needs as the pandemic unfolds and will begin measuring how food environments have changed with food outlet closures, limited hours, or varying availability of food delivery. We strive to better understand how these changes impact food security and equitable access to food for all Angelenos.