Household Experiences: The COVID-19 Pandemic and Food Sufficiency

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, food insufficiency in the Detroit-Warren-Dearborn Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) was at the forefront of many organizations’ mission. D3 has helped organizations such as Forgotten Harvest understand where potential food insecurity exists to help better serve communities and how to manage limited resources most efficiently. In fact, over 15% of households receive some form of food assistance in the MSA, soaring to much higher rates in some cities like River Rouge (45.3%), Hamtramck (44.7%), Detroit (40.7%), Pontiac (34.5%), Port Huron (29.8%), and Mt. Clemens (27.0%).

Since the pandemic has created astronomical unemployment rates in Michigan, understanding its impact on potential food insecurity can help our community respond quickly to the communities that need critical help providing food for their households. By utilizing the Census Household Pulse Survey, as we have to understand the pandemic’s impact on K-12 education and housing security, we can start to understand the experiences of households in the Detroit MSA. Combined with more local data from the State of the Detroit Child tool, we can also help identify communities that might benefit most from immediate outreach efforts. 

The Pulse Survey identifies adults over 18 years old in the US. It’s implemented weekly and gives a snapshot in the country, state, and the fifteen largest metro areas in the country, including Detroit. This data is from Week 6 of the Pulse Survey, capturing lived experiences as of June 4-9th.

How Much Do People Spend on Food?

Overall, Detroit MSA residents spend slightly more on food than Michigan residents as a whole, both on food prepared at home and eating out.  Respondents in all three geographic areas spend a little over a quarter of their monthly food budget on restaurants, both eating out and delivery.

Average Monthly Spending on Food

Families with more kids tend to spend a larger percentage of their food budget on food outside the home in Michigan. The exception is households with two children, which has the lowest rate of spending on takeout. Prior to the pandemic, respondents who reported that they often do not have enough to eat spent a very small amount (2.0%) of their monthly budget on eating out. In the week preceding this survey though, families who reported not having enough to eat reported spending almost 40% of their monthly budget on food prepared elsewhere. This could indicate some increased difficulty in obtaining food from usual sources, increased time constraints due to childcare/school being closed, or other issues related to obtaining food.

Who Reports Food Insufficiency? 

The Pulse Survey records four types of food access: Enough of the types of food wanted; enough food, but not always the types wanted; sometimes not enough to eat, and often not enough to eat. In all three geographic areas, respondents reporting that they often don’t have enough to eat are only 1.3-1.9%. Sometimes not enough to eat ranges from 6.6% nationally to 8% in the Detroit MSA.  

When we combine the sometimes and often not enough to eat, the Detroit MSA has a slightly higher rate of food insufficiency than the state or country. Interestingly, the rate of food insufficiency has remained stable when people are asked to think about prior to March 13th compared to the past week. However, reported food insufficiency increases when considering respondents that have children in their households.  

While the pandemic doesn’t seem to have impacted respondents overall, it increased food insufficiency in households with children by 2%. Within households reporting food insufficiency, 36% of respondents reported that the household’s children were often or sometimes not eating enough because food was unaffordable. This could be due to a variety of reasons, such as schools being cancelled and normal avenues for food access in communities like free school breakfasts being more difficult to access for families without vehicle access, high-risk medical needs and a greater risk of catching coronavirus by going out, and/or lack of knowledge about the resources available to the families while school was in distance learning format or canceled.

School districts have continued providing free meals in the Detroit area. For example, in the Wayne Regional Education Service Agency, families can access interactive resources about obtaining food; however, there is likely to be overlap between families that struggle with food access and households that do not have good Internet access.

Other groups of respondents that report higher than average rates of food insufficiency (often or sometimes don’t have access to enough food) include minorities like Hispanics (20.4%) and Blacks (21.7%), respondents with less than a high school education (38.7%), respondents with partial pay for time not working (23.8%), and households with income between $35,000 and $49,999. It could be that these households with middling incomes are not usually connected to resources for food support but also do not make enough money to build out savings to help bridge the uncertainty of the pandemic. Of note, being employed or unemployed currently and having insurance or not didn’t impact a respondent’s ability to have food.

Why Not Enough Food?

Of the 1,510,058 people with food insufficiency in the previous 7 days, 61.5% reported they had enough, but not always the types of food wanted, 20.5% reported they sometimes didn’t have enough to eat, and 2.7% reported often they don’t have enough to eat. Understanding the reasons for food insufficiency in these households can help strategize solutions moving forward as the pandemic continues to disrupt normal pathways of obtaining food.

Reasons for Not Having Enough Food

Overall, the most common reasons for not having preferred or enough food was that stores didn’t have the food desired (40%) and inability to afford more food (31%). These proportions were about the same when looking specifically at households with children. Almost 13% of respondents also said they were afraid or didn’t want to go out to buy more food. The data provides further breakdown of reasons by the degree of food insufficiency. We can begin to see that people who didn’t have their preferred foods were significantly more likely to report food shortages in grocery stores, but less likely to report finances as a reason for not obtaining preferred foods.

Over 50% of people reporting they couldn’t access the food they wanted reported that stores did not have the food they wanted. While this is less of a concern for respondents with food shortages, even respondents who often don’t have enough food reported issues obtaining the food they wanted. This reflects supply chain issues that still exist, making certain food items, like chicken, harder and/or more expensive to purchase.

Reasons for Food Insufficiency

Respondents who sometimes or often did not have enough to eat are highly likely to be unable to afford buying more food. Not being able to go out and get food or get groceries delivered impacted people who had enough food, but not always the types wanted and those with sometimes not enough food more often than those reporting food shortages. These interruptions could have been caused by overwhelmed grocery delivery services, less time for grocery shopping due to childcare pressures, and more.  

About 10% of respondents reporting food insufficiency say that they have received free groceries or a free meal in the past seven days. Most of the free food providers were schools or other programs aimed at children and from food pantry or food banks. When looking at households with children, 95% of households reporting access to free groceries or meals identified school and child-focused programs as a source of food. This highlights an area of opportunity for connecting households with resources beyond those in schools. 

What’s next?

Only 17% of respondents reporting food insufficiency were very confident they will be able to afford food over the next four weeks with a majority of those being respondents who reported enough food but not the types preferred. Forty percent report that they are somewhat or not at all confident in being able to afford food moving forward. So finding ways to connect households to available resources moving forward, especially as the school year ends and households with children have to adjust again to a “new normal.”

Since so few respondents are reporting receiving free groceries or meals, expanding outreach in non-children focused food programs and helping households who might not normally seek food assistance could help expand usage. For example, Gleaners is working with partners to provide food assistance in socially distanced ways like drive-up distribution and food box deliveries. Continuing to pursue policy initiatives like transferring free and reduced school lunch benefits to SNAP cards can also help bridge the gap for families with food insufficiency. We’re always looking to help community partners through our AskD3 program. We provide answers to questions that can help you provide more efficient and effective programs to the community during the changes the COVID-19 pandemic has caused.

Do you know how your community is faring in the changing economic landscape? Our State of the Detroit Child tool allows users to explore Michigan geographies and get an idea of the number of children that live there, and what resources are available to them.