Pandemic Increases Food Insecurity in Oregon

by Polly Farrimond

May 10, 2021

At the end of 2020, Oregon State University published a report on food insecurity in Oregon. This report was created by Mark Edwards, a Sociology Professor and Director of OSU’s Policy Analysis Laboratory in the College of Liberal Arts. The report found that one million Oregonians, close to one out of four people, experienced food insecurity during 2020. 

The USDA has adopted definitions to measure food security and food insecurity:

  • Food Security
  • High food security: no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations. 
  • Marginal food security: one or two reported indications, typically of anxiety of food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.
  • Food Insecurity
  • Low food security: reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
  • Very low food security: reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
In the time period following the Great Recession, food programs and rising employment numbers lowered the food insecurity rate to around 10% of Oregonians in December 2019. After the COVID-19 Pandemic began, by May of 2020 the insecurity rates had increased to a level never experienced before in Oregon, at roughly 20% of households or nearly one million Oregonians. With job losses and the pandemic, the rate for households experiencing unemployment was around 30%. This estimate does not include those that were never unemployed but were under-employed working reduced hours during this recession. The study at Oregon State University concluded that the food insecurity rate was in the range of around 25% for 2020. The following graph shows the levels for Oregon and the U.S. in food security and food insecurity. 
Oregon State University asked people if they had to cut down their size of meals or skip meals to make their food supplies last. The Current Population Survey was used in the study until December 2019, and then the current unemployment data was used to estimate the 2020 data. In December 2019, 20% of Black, Hispanic/Latino, and indigenous households experienced food insecurity, while the White population had a rate of 10%. Taking this into account since the numbers doubled by the end of 2020, Mark Edwards notes, “So now if you imagine that our food insecurity rate has doubled, then there’s every reason to believe that the number for people of color has doubled into the 30% range, and I’m being conservative when I say that.” 

In March 2020, a bill was passed in the United States to provide broad flexibility in payment made by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by each state in the country. Benefits increased to families with children attending school, who received additional funds in their SNAP accounts. Because 90% of school-aged children who receive SNAP are automatically enrolled for the free and reduced lunch program, these increased funds helped bridge the gap that existed because children were no longer in the classroom. Oregon piloted a Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program that quickly put assistance in the homes of school-age children. This benefit transfer issued $35.6 miliion in funds previous to the start of the 2020-2021 school year, serving 347,000 children in the state.

Another population affected by the food insecurity problem is college students. Currently in Oregon there is a proposed bill in the House of Representatives that requires each college and university to hire a benefits navigator to assist students in determining eligibility and making application for federal, state, and local benefit programs. A study done at Portland State University showed White students were most secure with 43% reporting insecurity on their next meal, where 56% of Black students reported food insecurity. 

Food insecurity isn’t evenly distributed across industries. Leisure and hospitality was the hardest hit industry in the pandemic as business restrictions closed down indoor dining for extended periods and travel was vastly reduced. A year into the pandemic, the industry still shows the largest job losses since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect. Prior to the pandemic, 16% to 17% of workers in leisure and hospitality reported food insecurity, the highest rate among industries according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organiziation. With a high share of workers already facing food insecurity, and job losses concentrated in the industry, these workers were particularly vulnerable to hunger during COVID.   

The Household Pulse Survey is a 20 minute online survey given by the Census Bureau that has been gathering data from across the country since April 23, 2020. The participants in Oregon were asked if there was either sometimes or often not enough to eat in the last seven days in their household. Between August 19, 2020 and March 29, 2021 an average of 9.5% of people in Oregon felt that they did not have enough to eat in the previous week. 

It is difficult to say how the pandemic will affect food scarcity and food insecurity rates over time. The initial spike in unemployment due to COVID-19 lasted just months and the unemployment rate was back below its long-run average by the fall. Economic stimulus also put more money into Oregon households as the pandemic continued. At the same time, food prices have risen sharply over the year and are expected to continue to increase in 2021 according to the USDA. As disruptions to in-person schooling ease, and more people are recalled to their regular employment, it will take time for the food insecurity levels to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.


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