It would be pointless for me to list the ways this pandemic has tossed and turned our daily lives. We are living that experience, and I would rather not recount the number of days I’ve spent cooped up inside my apartment. We’ve done our parts, isolating from friends and family, maintaining a social distance and wearing masks when we go out. But, some Americans are facing this virus in a way and at a place that perhaps many reading this post have not: at the kitchen table.
During this pandemic, food has served as a point of contention for many Americans struggling to pay their bills, cover their rent, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. In fact, 40% of respondents in a recent survey said that the pandemic contributed to their first instance of food insecurity.
Food insecurity, the “disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources,” is no new phenomenon. In 2018, 11.1% of Americans faced some form of food insecurity during the year.
The pandemic has certainly exacerbated the issue, as historically high unemployment rates emphasize the increasing difficulty for Americans to afford basic needs. Feeding America estimates that 15.6% of the total population, or 50 million people, will face food insecurity this year. That’s an increase of over 13 million people from 2018, and a higher rate than that seen during the Great Recession just a decade ago.
Insecurity increases are region-specific. According to Feeding America, locations with higher relative insecurity rates before the pandemic will continue to see higher relative rates, while locations that had relatively low rates will see larger relative increases, although still remaining low.
These disparities, unfortunately, spread beyond regional bounds and into marginalized communities. One-sixth of Latino households face hunger, while Black Americans experience rates of hunger over twice that of white, non-Hispanic households.
It is clear that the pandemic has intensified Americans’ struggles to simply put meals on the table, more so in communities of Black and Latino Americans. But, another question lies in what Americans are actually eating and where they are getting their food from.
It would be a mistake to say that the American diet is the pinnacle of nutrition. Analysis by health experts suggests the opposite is true. Most Americans do not meet health experts’ recommended levels of vegetable and fruit food groups, overconsuming grains and proteins.
Indeed, America’s skewed diet may lie outside the home, as just before the pandemic Americans ate out for one-third of their meals. Such patterns raise concerns over what restaurants are serving their customers, prompting further issuance among advocacy groups against the use of menu items high in fats, calories, and sugars, as well as reductions in portion sizes.
The effects of the American diet are well-documented and well-criticized. Centers for Disease Control data from 2017-2018 cites that the “prevalence of obesity in adults was 42.4%,” a startling proportion given its ties to life-threatening conditions like strokes, heart disease, diabetes, and cancers. The obesity crisis is most dire for Black and Hispanic Americans, who have obesity rates of 49.6% and 44.8%, respectively.
Obesity may raise even more concerns in light of the recent pandemic, as evidence suggests obesity increases the severity of COVID-19. However, experts point out a more important trend of COVID-19: it clusters around Black and Hispanic communities, which are not only at higher risk for obesity but also experience high rates of relative food insecurity.
So, what is clear? The American diet poses serious questions related to the potential risks of obesity and an unhealthy diet on the health implications of COVID-19. However, evidence suggests such risks are highly concentrated in marginalized Black and Hispanic communities, a common trend also seen in food insecurity.
Considering these disturbing trends, our government must pay special attention to the marginalized communities most harmed by this virus. Especially during this pandemic, the government must expand its welfare efforts through programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), that give greater access to food for lower-income individuals. Furthermore, the prevalence of obesity and its links to COVID-19 provide an opportunity to leverage public access and awareness to the negative health implications of the American diet.
The relevance of nutrition and obesity to COVID-19 provides an opening for policymakers to address food insecurity and diet. It is therefore necessary that efforts are made to promote better access to nutritional, expert-recommended diets, especially among Black and Latino communities, as a means of curbing hunger and American susceptibility to COVID-19.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.
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