Families worried about having enough food during the COVID-19 pandemic are at three times the risk of experiencing anxiety or depression than those that have lost jobs, according to research by three Arkansas agricultural economists.
“Our results suggest that COVID relief should place more focus on food assistance,” said Michael Thomsen, professor in the department of agricultural economics and agribusiness for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station and the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas.
The experiment station is the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
Thomsen and his collaborators, Di Fang, assistant professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness in Bumpers College, and Rudy Nayga, Distinguished Professor and holder of the Tyson Chair in Food Policy Economics for the Agricultural Experiment Station and Bumpers College, conducted a survey of low-income Americans during the pandemic. They had more than 2,700 responses to the survey.
Fang said 28 percent of low-income families were food insecure before the pandemic. Families with female heads of house were a disproportionate percentage of those. Stay-at-home restrictions and the closing of food stores and restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic compounded worries about having enough food.
Low-income families have been particularly vulnerable to food insecurity and its contribution to mental health problems during the pandemic, Nayga said. Low-income families often live in “food deserts,” areas with few outlets for fresh foods. This requires longer trips to supermarkets and greater reliance on public transportation, much of which was shut down or operating on reduced schedules during the shutdown.
Also, children of low-income families often rely on school breakfast and lunch programs. The closing of in-person classes during the pandemic meant that many of those food programs were not available.
“COVID is not just a health crisis,” Fang said. “It’s also a hunger crisis.”
Nayga noted that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) expansion as part of the U.S. government’s COVID-19 relief efforts only helped families that were not already receiving the maximum benefits allowed by the program. Those families whose low incomes already made them eligible for the maximum benefits did not receive increased assistance.
“The SNAP expansion for COVID didn’t help the poorest of the poor,” Thomsen said.
Overall, Fang said, “If you’re food insecure — if you are worried about having enough food during the pandemic — you are at three times the risk of experiencing anxiety or depression than someone who lost their job during the pandemic.”
The risks for mental health problems cut across all races among low-income families, Fang said. The risk is greater for the elderly and families with children.
Thomsen said the survey results suggest that financial aid during the pandemic, while helpful, had relatively little effect on mental health concerns caused by food insecurity. “COVID relief should place more focus on food assistance.”
Food assistance can also help give a boost to the economy, Thomsen said. “There’s evidence that increases in SNAP benefits lead to more money being spent on food than direct money payments,” he said.
Fang added that the implications of their research “suggest that more public health measures for the pandemic should focus on getting direct subsidies of food purchases to poor families, especially families with children, as well as removing the barriers to accessing charitable food sources.”