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Pandemic created food insufficiency for many Tennessee households

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial impact on the health and economic well-being of many households in Tennessee and the United States. While some households have been directly affected by a COVID-19 illness in their family, others have changed their daily behaviors to minimize the risk of contracting the virus or to comply with social distancing policies. Businesses have also had to modify their operations to respond to changes in consumer demand, social distancing policies and outbreaks of COVID-19 in their facilities. The pandemic has not only strained the agriculture supply chain, leading to shortages in grocery stores, but also historic levels of unemployment. The loss of employment further exacerbates a household’s ability to obtain a sufficient amount of food.
The latest research from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture indicates that during late April and early May 2020, approximately 525,000 Tennessee households were food insufficient, meaning they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat — that’s one in 10 families. About 30% of these struggling households were food sufficient prior to the onset of the pandemic.
The data for the study of Tennessee households were drawn from a national survey, the Household Pulse Survey, from April 23 to May 26. This time period coincides with the end of Tennessee’s statewide stay-at-home order. The survey’s measurement of food insufficiency is similar to very low food security which the federal government measures annually. “Between 2016 and 2018, approximately 5.2% of Tennessee households experienced very low food security,” said Jackie Yenerall, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ARE). “This makes the finding that 10% of Tennessee households were food insufficient in just the first few months of the pandemic all the more concerning.”
Adding to concerns about the current food insufficiency status, nearly half of the food-insufficient households were not confident in their ability to afford food in the next four weeks. “Household characteristics across food sufficiency tell a story that is even more concerning,” said ARE professor and lead researcher Kim Jensen. “Food-insufficient families were more likely to have children under the age of 18 in the household and were less likely to be currently employed.”
Among the weeks included in the study, the week of April 23 through May 5 was the peak of need, with approximately 83,000 Tennessee households seeking assistance with free food from schools or other programs aimed at children, followed by food banks, family and friends.
The study noted that one method of addressing food insufficiency resulting from insufficient financial resources is to utilize sources of free meals or free groceries.The survey showed that the percentage of food-insufficient Tennessee households utilizing such a resource was at its highest during the period of  April 23-May 5, with 13.9 percent of food-insufficient households using this resource; this translates to 82,947 households. By May 21-May 26, this percentage had dropped to 2.0 percent of food-insufficient households or 10,762 households.
The study shows that during the first few weeks after the pandemic, the majority of households were food sufficient (had enough to eat). However, about 525,000 Tennessee households were projected to sometimes or often not have enough to eat in the last seven days. Among the food-insufficient households, about 30 percent of these were food sufficient prior to the pandemic. This suggests a shift toward food insufficiency during the first few weeks of the pandemic. The use of free groceries or meals was at its peak during the first survey period after the pandemic. At that point, nearly 83,000 households were projected to use free groceries or meals in the last seven days.The most commonly cited free food providers included school or other programs aimed at children, food pantries or banks, and family, friends and neighbors. Many food-insufficient households — in some weeks, over half — were not at all confident of their ability to afford food in the next four weeks. Less than 2 percent of these households were very confident. These results signal a high degree of uncertainty about future food affordability among food-insufficient households. Analysis of household characteristics across food sufficiency reveals that Tennessee’s food-insufficient households tended to have lower education levels,be younger, have children in the household, to be unemployed, to be races other than white, and to have lower incomes than food-sufficient households. Household spending on food from across the survey time periods tended to be much more stable for food-sufficient households than for those that often did not have enough to eat. The share of food spent for at-home preparation is much higher than what is usually allocated for food-at-home, reflecting food shoppers spending the majority of their food dollars for at-home preparation than away from home during the pandemic. However, among the most food-sufficient households, this share declined over the survey time periods, as more restaurants and eating establishments were able to open.