More people do not have enough food to eat and are experiencing anxiety and depression due to the disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study.

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The economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a significant increase in the number of families in the United States without enough food to eat.

Experts refer to this as “food insufficiency,” the most extreme form of food insecurity.

According to the new paper’s authors, such a lack of sustenance compromises physiological health, may increase the likelihood of contracting a SARS-CoV-2 infection, and is also linked to poor mental health.

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The study, which appears in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, evaluates the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on food insufficiency in the U.S., the effect it is having on the mental health of people in the country, and factors contributing to its rise.

The study found that there has been a 25% increase in food insufficiency in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic, accompanied by a significant increase in anxiety and depression.

“Hunger, exhaustion, and worrying about not getting enough food to eat may worsen depression and anxiety symptoms,” says lead author Jason Nagata of the University of California, San Francisco.

The researchers analyzed data for 63,674 U.S. adults from June 11 to June 16, 2020, which they acquired through the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The households answered up to three series of questions over the survey period.

The scientists asked the respondents to select the description that reflected the food available to them, which were:

  • enough of the kinds of food (I/we) wanted to eat
  • enough, but not always the kinds of food (I/we) wanted to eat
  • sometimes not enough to eat
  • often not enough to eat

Participants also said if they had received free groceries or meals in the last 7 days, and where it had come from, including:

  • free meals through the school or other programs aimed at children
  • a food pantry or food bank
  • a meal delivery service such as Meals on Wheels
  • a church, synagogue, temple, mosque, or other religious organization
  • a shelter or soup kitchen
  • a community program
  • family, friends, or neighbors

The scientists assessed the respondents’ mental health via questions based on the Generalized Anxiety Disorder scale and the Patient Health Questionnaire.

The researchers also collected demographic and socioeconomic information.

The study found that food insufficiency had increased in the U.S. from 8.1% to 10% from March to June 2020.

The study cites unemployment, lockdowns, and school closures as being drivers of this increase.

For people experiencing food insufficiency, 76.5% had lost their jobs in the last 7 days, while 54.4% were living below the federal poverty level.

Food insufficiency was also more common among people with less education. In addition — though to a lesser extent — those who are young, unmarried, or living in a household of many people were also seen to be at an increased risk of not having enough food.

Almost 1 in 10 households had received free groceries in June 2020. These most often came from:

  • school programs (4.1%)
  • a food pantry or food bank (2.8%)
  • family friends or neighbors (2.5%).

Among those reporting food insufficiency, 93.8% also reported one or more mental health issues, which included feeling anxious, depressed, worried, or experiencing a loss of interest in life.

The pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of many people. Anxiety symptoms were reported by 65% of all respondents, with 52% reporting having been depressed in the 7 days before the survey.

People with food insufficiency reported a far greater incidence of both anxiety and depression.

Among people with food insufficiency, 89% reported experiencing anxiety, compared to 63% of those who had enough to eat. Depression was reported by 83% of people without enough food, and just 49% of people not experiencing food insufficiency.

Black and Latinx Americans have about 2.5 times the risk of food insufficiency compared to whites.

Says Nagata:

“People of color are disproportionately affected by both food insufficiency and COVID-19. Many of these individuals have experienced job loss and higher rates of poverty during the pandemic.”

The study notes that before the pandemic and lockdowns, almost 35 million U.S. children, most of whom belong to minorities, were receiving free meals at school. As schools closed, they could no longer rely on this food safety net.

The research also found that free food programs were of significant value in easing food insufficiency. Study co-author Kyle Ganson, of the University of Toronto, comments,

“Policymakers should expand benefits and eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other programs to address both food insecurity and mental health.”