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Food insecurity in Vermont has risen by a third during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey released Monday by University of Vermont researchers.
Food insecurity increased from 18.3% before the pandemic to 24.3% after the start of the pandemic, according to the survey. A total of 3,251 Vermonters responded to the survey, which ran from March 29 to April 12.
The survey also found a correlation between coronavirus-related job loss or disruption and food insecurity. Meredith Niles, assistant professor in UVM’s Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences and the lead researcher, said that 35% of food insecure people are newly food insecure, and 70% of those individuals had a job loss or disruption caused by the coronavirus.
“There's a really clear link between coronavirus-induced job loss and disruption and people who are newly food insecure, which is driving most of the increase that we see,” she said.
Researchers used the U.S. Department of Agriculture definition of food insecurity, which is based on respondent’s answers to a series of questions.
The survey found that two-thirds of food insecure Vermonters had lost their jobs or experienced work disruptions since the start of the pandemic. Overall, 45% of respondents had either lost their jobs, been furloughed or had hours reduced during the pandemic.
Niles said people who were already food insecure were more likely to lose their jobs or experience job disruptions during the pandemic than those who were not. Lower income is associated with higher rates of food insecurity, and Niles said individuals working jobs in the service industry or gig economy were already vulnerable.
“Among people who were already food insecure, it's probable that they were working in lower paying jobs potentially more vulnerable to the business closures that we saw,” she said.
People of color, women, those with children and in larger households were more likely to report food insecurity, according to the survey.
Across the board, high percentages of survey respondents expressed concern about the safety of going to the grocery store and receiving food deliveries, Niles said.
“People are really feeling like they want to have a better sense of being able to trust going to the grocery store, food safety being a concern,” she said. “I think that's a broad result that we see across all of our respondents across all of the population.”
Less than 30% of food insecure Vermonters participated in food assistance programs, the survey found.
Niles said that less than 20% of recently food-insecure individuals were utilizing government programs or food pantries, a far lower percentage than those who had been food insecure for a longer period of time.
“It's entirely possible that people who are suddenly facing food insecurity for the first time just don't know where to look for help,” she said. “They don't know how to access these potential programs that might be of assistance.”
Those with food insecurity were more likely to say that since the start of Gov. Phil Scott’s “stay home” order, they had trouble affording food and buying as much food or the type of food they needed.
While only 49% of respondents said they bought many more items in a single trip to the grocery store since the start of the pandemic, 88% said they felt the average U.S. household had done so.
“I do think there is something to be said about recognizing that we're all potentially contributing to a challenge right now, and thinking about others,” Niles said. “Our results suggest that we think other people are pursuing some of these strategies, but maybe we are not.”
Niles said that she was hopeful that Vermonters had been looking out for each other during the pandemic as the number of people who said that someone brings them food has doubled since the start of the outbreak, from 10% to 20%.
“I think it's really showing that Vermonters are stepping up to the challenge and trying to look after people who may be more vulnerable or may need more help during this time,” Niles said. “I found that result to be really hopeful.”
Niles said that additional research needs to be done to determine if enhanced unemployment benefits or the federal government’s $1,200 stimulus checks for individuals were having an impact in decreasing food insecurity.
“If unemployment benefits plus these extra checks are supplying a significant portion of additional income then ideally we would hope that those needs would be met,” she said. “But we can't say that definitively without some more data.”
The survey has a margin of error of 2% and was developed in collaboration with researchers at Johns Hopkins University and fielded by the University of Vermont team.
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