A Year of Food Insecurity in Los Angeles County During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Racial and Ethnic Minorities Have Been Hardest Hit

Before the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the U.S. and Los Angeles (LA) early in 2020, food security was already a challenge for many households. In a ‘typical’ year, food insecurity — which is a disruption in regular eating because of limited money or other resources — affects 1 in 10 households in the U.S. (Economic Research Service, 2019). In LA County, food insecurity has traditionally been monitored among low-income households (< 300% of the Federal Poverty Line) only, and the proportion that experienced food insecurity at some point throughout an entire year was: 31% in 2011, 29% in 2015, and 27% in 2018 (LAC DPH, 2017, 2018).

Since April of 2020, when the pandemic took hold in LA County and the collateral damage of school closures, job losses, and economic and social stress affected many Angelenos, rates of food insecurity spiked. Drawing on data from the Understanding Coronavirus in America Survey, our team found that 34% of all LA County households (approximately 1.2 million households) experienced food insecurity between April and December of 2020. We also found marked racial and ethnic disparities in food insecurity during the pandemic. Non-Hispanic White Angelenos had the lowest
rates of food insecurity from April to December 2020 at 21%, compared to 40% of Hispanic/Latinos, 39% of African Americans, and 28% of Asians.

Racial and ethnic minorities have long experienced health and economic disparities, including disparities in food insecurity. During the pandemic these inequities have been exacerbated with minorities more likely to experience financial hardships, unemployment, illness and severe health outcomes from COVID-19 (Owen et al., 2020; Couch et al., 2020; Ambrose, 2020). It is likely that greater exposures to health and economic strains are driving the higher rates of food insecurity in these communities (de la Haye et al., 2020).

Food insecurity is a public health issue that is critical to address and prevent. The experience of hunger is often top-of-mind, but food insecurity also leads to a host of other negative physical and mental health outcomes for children and adults; including poor nutrition, worse general health, anxiety and depression, and a higher risk for obesity, diabetes, and hypertension (Dhurandhar, 2016; Gundersen & Ziliak, 2015). Ensuring all LA County residents can be food secure — particularly racial and ethnic groups being unequally impacted by COVID-19 — will be an important public health priority as we begin our recovery from this pandemic.

This research brief is an update to two public reports on the impact of COVID-19 on food insecurity in LA County released in July and September 2020. Read the full research brief here.