At the height of the COVID pandemic, one in three Los Angeles County households experienced disruptions in eating due to a lack of resources or money between the months of April and December 2020. That number significantly dipped to more than one in ten Angelenos—roughly one million—by the first half of 2021, a new report by USC Dornsife’s Public Exchange finds.
While the dip indicates that food insecurity is returning to pre-pandemic levels, researchers are still concerned that too many people are still struggling to have this basic need met.
“While it is encouraging to see food insecurity declining, it is still unacceptable that nearly one million Los Angeles County residents find it difficult to put food on the table,” said lead researcher Kayla de la Haye, an assistant professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
In their report, the researchers found that adults who remained food insecure during the first half of 2021 were predominantly people who are low-income, women, Latinos, and those between the ages of 18 to 40.
Food benefit programs such as CalFresh, federally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, helped some households become food secure during that time. But researchers found that only one in four food-insecure households were receiving those benefits as of June 2021. Another major barrier for these households was that more than a third of them were located in “food deserts” or low-income areas with poor access to supermarkets and large grocery stores.
The researchers teamed up with two private sector partners, Yelp and findhelp.org, a free search and referral website that connects people who are seeking food assistance and other free or reduced cost programs. These partnerships helped researchers better understand the challenges that food-insecure households face in real time, they said.
“A lot of food outlets had to temporarily close or reduce their number of customers,” de la Haye said. “An unintended consequence was that food access became more difficult, adding to the challenges of people with food insecurity.”
She added, “New sources of data allowed us to identify when and where these closures occurred, as well as neighborhoods with a double burden of food deserts and ‘food assistance deserts,’ meaning no food assistance providers were nearby.”
From the data provided by Yelp and findhelp.org, researchers found that one in three census areas in the Antelope Valley and South L.A. face the double burden of being food deserts and food assistance deserts, USC News reports. They also found that more than three-quarters or 77 percent of census tracts that are food deserts have no food assistance providers nearby, and one in three people experiencing food insecurity struggled to get food because they didn’t have transportation or because grocery stores near them had either closed or had limited hours.
Researchers also discovered that half of the people who were food insecure couldn’t get groceries delivered and that there was a boost in the number of food establishments that closed—at least temporarily—was high among fast food and full service restaurants.
Based on their findings, the researchers laid out several recommendations for L.A. County, including targeted outreach to enroll more food-insecure people in the CalFresh program and to conduct interviews with people who are impacted by food insecurity to get a handle on what their community needs. They also suggest that the county address equitable access to food through urban planning, and monitor and invest in fair food systems by establishing partnerships with researchers, government, community organizations, and private partners before a crisis hits.
USC researchers met regularly with the L.A. County Emergency Food Security Branch—a collaborator on the study—to discuss changes in food insecurity. L.A. County officials plan to launch a new Food Equity Roundtable this month to continue improving the food system and food access across the county, researchers said.
“These research findings demonstrate the need for us to continue with our efforts towards building equitable and sustainable food support systems,” said Swati Chandra, director of the L.A. County Food Equity Roundtable. “We will build upon the cross-sector collaboration with government, philanthropy, community-based organizations, academia and others to provide food assistance during this pandemic, as well as better prepare for other challenging times.”
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