By Christopher Walljasper
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The number of Hispanic and Black families without enough to eat climbed in 2020, the U.S. government said on Wednesday, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses and left millions of laid off Americans scrambling to put food on the table.
Overall food insecurity in America was unchanged from 2019 at 10.5%, the lowest level since the Great Recession, however.
Higher national hunger rates were avoided because the U.S. government spent billions of dollars on federal aid programs ranging from food buying to cash payments and expanded school lunch availability, data showed, while support from non-profit food banks also increased, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) annual Household Food Security in the United States report.
Twenty percent of Americans received charitable food assistance in 2020, according to Feeding America, the largest non-profit network of food banks in the country.
“In 2020, We saw public health and economic impacts, but there were also extra resources available to households,” said Alisha Coleman-Jensen, social science analyst for USDA's Economic Research Service.
But for Black and Hispanic families, as well as those in the South, hunger was exacerbated by the pandemic. The report showed more than one in four Black households with children were food insecure at some point in 2020, meaning they had to skip a meal or had less to feed their families - an 18% increase versus 2019. Hispanic families with children facing hunger jumped 28% to more than one in five.
In response to the crisis, the USDA spent $4 billion on food for food banks in 2020, which served 60 million people last year, a 50% increase compared to 2019, according to Feeding America.[L1N2E91DJ][L1N2LU1JX]
In 2020, the USDA also spent 20 times more than it normally does to provide school meals to students, regardless of income.[L1N2OY1N1]
But as expanded unemployment benefits ended for all Americans on Sept. 4, some food providers fear the safety net is being removed too quickly.
"We know many of these interventions are only temporary. There were tens of millions of people who needed help before the pandemic, and there are still tens of millions of people who need our help today," said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America in a Sept. 1 press release.
(Reporting by Christopher Walljasper; Editing by Aurora Ellis)