This article is part of a week-long series for IWPR’s signature Status of Women in the States initiative. The work featured in this series highlights the various ways the pandemic and related economic crisis are impacting women and their families at the state level. This project builds on IWPR’s recent economic recovery report that details the extent to which women, and particularly women of color, have shouldered the greatest burden of the economic crisis, and also proposes a slate of bold policies to ensure a gender-equitable recovery. The pieces included in this series provide a snapshot of what women are experiencing in states across the nation, and highlight the urgent need for federal funding for states and localities. 

While families have endured prolonged unemployment and income loss over the past ten months, they have also reported stark increases in food insecurity. Photos of food bank lines snaking through San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Boston, and New Orleans, among others cities and towns across the nation, illustrate the extent to which the economic crisis is bearing down on families. According to the most recent Household PULSE Survey data, 11.5 percent of respondents—and 12.2 percent of women—have “sometimes” or “often” not had enough to eat in the past seven days. In many states, an even greater percentage of individuals are struggling to feed their families.

The data mirrors what we already know about the ways the pandemic and related economic crisis are exacerbating racial and gender inequality in the United States. Black and Hispanic communities are shouldering the heaviest burden of the public health and economic crises. Among those who experienced loss of employment income, one in five Black women and more than a quarter of Black men reported their households did not have enough to eat. For Hispanic families, almost 20 percent of Hispanic women and 13 percent of Hispanic men reported experiencing food insufficiency.

The Household Pulse Survey data reveals gender disparities in food insecurity by state (see above map). Many southern states (Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, and Texas) are experiencing the highest levels of food insecurity in the nation, with women outnumbering men in not having enough to eat. Louisiana has the highest rate of food insecurity—18.9 percent overall—with nearly 20 percent of women in that state reporting they “sometimes” or “often” do not have enough food. In households headed by single women with children, food insecurity is three times higher than those headed by married couples (27.8 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively. Additionally, food insecurity rates are highest among Black and Latina single-mother headed households compared to their White counterparts.

The Pulse survey data shows just how dire many women across the country feel about the weeks ahead. When asked “how confident are you that your household will be able to afford the kinds of food you need for the next four weeks?” 31 percent responded they were not at all confident or were only somewhat confident. A shocking 44 percent of women in Mississippi are uncertain if they will be able to afford the food they need, and between 37-38 percent of women in Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, West Virginia, and Georgia reported the same. In every single state in the nation, more than 20 percent of women report feeling uncertain about their food security in the coming weeks.

Now more than ever, federal nutrition programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), continue to be a crucial first line of defense against food insecurity. Continued support and aid dedicated to these programs will be critical in feeding food insecure families as food banks struggle to provide adequate resources due to surges in demand, declines in donations, and fewer available volunteers. We must suspend time limits for SNAP eligibility for unemployed and underemployed individuals while also providing additional relief for food banks and emergency food providers. Without aid focused on providing nutritious food to families, the national will continue to struggle, with families of color, women, and unemployed workers paying the highest price.

After the Great Recession it took ten years for food insecurity rates to return to pre-recession levels. Now, with no immediate end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, food insecurity is higher than ever. Without additional relief from the federal government, including significant supports for states and localities, we will continue to see the cascading effects of the pandemic’s social and economic consequences.