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Vermont Survey Shows Jump in Food Insecurity Amid COVID-19

As much of the American economy has been restricted, economic impacts are beginning to translate into food insecurity.

As states begin to re-assess the length and structure of their efforts to counter the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, a new report from the state of Vermont is helping to paint a picture of the economic impacts of such measures.

A new survey from the University of Vermont shows roughly 1 in 4 of the state’s residents is now considered “food insecure,” meaning they do not have reliable access to sufficient, quality food. The survey is based on responses from 3251 Vermonters from March 29th through April 12th. They found 24.3% of residents reported food insecurity, up from 18.3% prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.

Principal investigator Meredith Niles, PhD, of the university’s department of nutrition and food science, said the increase appears to be closely correlated with the loss of employment as a result of closures and stay-at-home guidelines. Nearly half (45%) of respondents said they had lost their jobs, been furloughed, or had hours reduced as a result of the pandemic.

“Our data suggests that the growth of food insecurity is related to job layoffs and other employment disruptions,” Niles said in a press release. “People who had lost their jobs or had their work disrupted were far more likely to be food insecure compared with those who remained employed.”

Among those who entered the pandemic food-insecure, the vast majority (84%) continued to be food-insecure as of late March and early April, the survey showed.

Niles and colleagues found, however, that most of the people contacted for the survey are not utilizing programs designed to assist them in procuring food. Just 30% of respondents said they were participating in such programs. Instead, the respondents seem to be trying to find ways to make their food supply stretch farther.

For instance, 77% said they were buying foods that had longer shelf lives, and 66% said they were eating less.

Farryl Bertmann, PhD, MS, MA, said it’s worrisome to see substantial numbers of people compensating for food insecurity by shrinking their diets.

"When people start eating less or disrupting their current eating patterns, we become concerned," she said, in the press release. "When forced to skip or stretch meals, people increase their risk for nutrition-related diseases, decrease their immune function and may negatively impact their mental and emotional health."

Respondents said access to additional funding or relief from bills would be most helpful, as well as expansion of government aid programs. When those who reported food insecurity were asked how much more money they would need each week in order to pay their bills and access sufficient food, the average response was $110.

Niles and colleagues also found that behavior was changing more broadly, even among those who are not food insecure. For instance, 87% said they are reducing the number of trips they make to the grocery store, and 58% said they are spending more time cooking.

The survey also found that a majority of respondents had difficulty locating all of the items on their shopping lists at the grocery store.

"We are all feeling the impacts of the coronavirus on the food system," Niles said