by Angela Zhang

While many were frantically stocking up on toilet paper and other essentials at the beginning of the pandemic, others were flocking to food banks and reeling from the impacts of rising unemployment. 

Graph of food insufficiency levels during the pandemic

COURTESY OF: USDA Economic Research Service (ERS)

Increased Household Food Insufficiency

According to the Household Pulse Survey (HPS), created by the Census Bureau, levels of household food insufficiency, a measure of the lack of food intake, ranged from 9.5 to 13.4 percent during the pandemic as compared to 3.7 percent in 2019. While food insufficiency is an imperfect measure that doesn’t account for the kinds of food people are eating, it does show us how many people are struggling to even acquire food.

This drastic increase doesn’t come as a surprise. Many studies have shown the links between food insecurity and poverty, unemployment and housing stability, and the pandemic has had a role to play in exacerbating each of these issues. 

Monthly earnings can be seen as a function of income and various costs including rent, food and bills. Decreases in income means that a larger share of the income will be made up of these monthly costs and consequently savings may be low, zero or even negative. 

Some costs such as rent are more or less fixed, while costs such as grocery bills can be subsidized by buying cheaper–and often less nutritious–foods. For this reason, grocery expenses are often the first to be subsidized in low-income households with few savings. 

Compounding Impacts of Poverty

While economic factors can play a large role in whether a household becomes food insecure, certain populations have become more vulnerable due to historical marginalization and the compounding effects of poverty.

“It’s more than socio-economics but that’s a good place to start.” said Dr. Rhonda Medows, President of Population Health Management, “We’re talking about populations who ordinarily have difficulty accessing care, accessing resources, and accessing the most basic necessities in life.” 

Many studies have shown the ways that poverty can impact one’s experience with education. Additionally, low-income school districts typically receive less investment and lower quality of education than other school districts. 

Lack of nutritious and substantial food can also affect students’ performance at school. Multiple studies have found that college students suffering from food insecurity were more likely to have poor sleep quality, high stress, physical, emotional and mental health issues. These students were also more likely to have a grade point average below 3.0.


While there is a clear link between poverty and food insecurity, other factors at play are less visible. Historical marginalization in some communities has left a larger share of BIPOC affected by poverty and consequently, food insecurity. Redlining, a policy implemented by the Federal Housing Administration from 1934 to 1968, refused to insure mortgages in and around black neighborhoods while subsidizing housing for whites and barring blacks to purchase these cheaper homes.

Redlining has led to a legacy of low-income, BIPOC communities. Many of these low-income communities have also seen the effects of supermarket redlining, the phenomenon where supermarket chains are disinclined to locate their stores in and pull-out existing stores from low-income neighborhoods. Supermarket redlining has contributed to the formation of food deserts, or perhaps more tellingly, the condition of food apartheid.

Map of areas of low food access in Los Angeles county.

Map of areas of low food access in Los Angeles county. Red areas show low-income census tracts where a significant number of residents is more than 1 mile in urban regions or 20 miles in rural areas from the nearest supermarket. Yellow areas show low-income census tracts where more than 100 housing units do not have a vehicle and in urban areas, are more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket.

Food Apartheid

“What I would rather say instead of “food desert” is “food apartheid,” because “food apartheid” looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith, and economics.” said Karen Washington, leading BIPOC food activist and urban farmer. “You say food apartheid and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system.” 

Community disinvestment and supermarket redlining might help to explain the fact that 21.2 and 16.2 percent of black and latino households are food insufficient as compared to the national average of 11.1 percent.

Now that we know that food insecurity is linked to income, affects education, and in some areas is the product of racially discriminatory policies, what is actually being done about it? 

It’s easy to view these communities as helpless victims of these problems, but it’s also important to see them as real human beings who are resilient and capable. In many of these neighborhoods, community-led efforts championing self-determination have been at work for decades. 

Solutions: Urban Farming

Big cities with high inequality such as Detroit, New York and Los Angeles have seen increasing urban farming efforts. 

These efforts targeting food insecurity also aim to tackle issues of air pollution, stormwater runoff and urban sustainability at large. Many urban farmers take to sustainable farming methods because of their belief in long-lasting, restorative solutions for the community.

Picture of urban farm in detroit with blue sky and surrounded by trees. City buildings visible in background

An urban farm in Detroit developed and operated with the help of 10,000 volunteers. COURTESY OF: THE MICHIGAN URBAN FARMING INITIATIVE

“To grow your own food gives you power and dignity. You know exactly what you’re eating because you grew it. It’s good, it’s nourishing and you did this for yourself, your family and your community.” said Washington. 

Solutions: Food Policy

In some counties, food policy councils have emerged to work with local communities and institutions in order to advance the “good food for all” agenda. The Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC), an organization self-described as the “backbone organization for a network of over 400 organizations and agencies working for healthy, sustainable and fair food,” has worked with farmers, nonprofits, government and academics on policy solutions to address barriers to urban farming, accessing SNAP resources, and licensing for small-business vendors. 

In the LAFPC’s introductory video, it is self described as “a way to bring together everyone who cares about transforming our food system to one that’s more sustainable, just, fair and healthy…to learn from one another and to build more of an overall strategy of how we can make progress.”

To help make progress and bolster the community-led fight against food insecurity, check out the following organizations to volunteer or donate to:

Look out for our upcoming article on urban farming to learn more about grassroots efforts to fight food insecurity in low-income communities. 

Know of any more solutions to food insecurity in cities? Please share them with us in the comments below!


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Grace Foreman
Grace Foreman
1 month ago

I really like how this article brought to light the experience of people living in food deserts, often at least an hour away from any supermarket or grocery store. Another solution in my mind would be the reduction of the police presence in food desert areas where residents are more likely to be people of color. It brought to mind Ron Finley, a black gardener living in LA who was charged for growing a community garden on his own property in his front yard. We have to consider that food deserts aren’t coincidental, and that removing part of the presence that keeps these neighborhoods from overcoming this issue could definitely be apart of the solution.

Dilan Patel
Dilan Patel
1 month ago

We need more urban farms!



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