One in six Americans could go hungry in 2020 as pandemic persists

With the holidays nearing, miles-long food lines are a hint at how hunger in America could soon surpass the peak of the 2007 recession.

People in food insecure households

in the U.S.

2020 projected

50.4 million people

50

million

40

35.2

2019:

33.2

30

17 million

children

20

10

12.9

10.7

0

2000

2020

2007

Financial crisis

U.S. food insecurity rate (all people)

11%

2019

2020 (projected)

16%

2020 may drive an additional

15.2 million people into hunger...

U.S. food insecurity rate (children only)

2019

15%

2020 (projected)

23%

...including 6.3 million

more children.

Sources: USDA (2000-2019);

Feeding America (2020)

People in food insecure households in the U.S.

2020 projected

50.4 million

people

50

million

40

35.2

2019:

33.2 million

30

20

17 million

children

12.9

10

10.7

0

2000

2010

2020

2007

Financial crisis

2020 may drive an additional

15.2 million people into hunger...

U.S. food insecurity rate (all people)

11%

2019

2020 (projected)

16%

...including 6.3 million

more children.

U.S. food insecurity rate (children only)

2019

15%

23%

2020 (projected)

Sources: USDA (2000-2019); Feeding America (2020)

Early one morning in mid-November, Trisha Cunningham, the president of North Texas Food Bank, arrived at a sprawling fairground in southern Dallas that hosts the annual Texas State Fair. Four lines of cars snaked for miles, from the entrance toward the skyscrapers downtown. Some of the drivers had arrived the night before and slept in their cars, waiting for a box of food that would help get them through Thanksgiving.

By the end of this year, more than 50 million people could experience food insecurity, according to Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organization. That’s one in six Americans and one in four children—nearly a 50 percent increase from 2019. A Northwestern University study in June found that food needs had doubled nationally, and tripled for households with children. The pandemic has laid bare how many people are one paycheck or medical bill away from hunger.

In October, Feeding America’s network of food banks and pantries distributed some 548 million meals, up 52 percent from an average month before the pandemic. In November, with the holidays approaching, it may be more. When the fairgrounds gates opened in Dallas, volunteers waved cars through rows of orange cones to receive a 15-pound box of produce, dry goods, a frozen turkey, and a loaf of bread. In a typical year, the North Texas Food Bank holiday distribution serves around 500 people. This year, when the gates closed, they’d sent 8,500 people home with more than half a million pounds of food. Before the pandemic, the food bank’s clientele were largely employed people who needed extra help to make ends meet. Now, many of them told Cunningham they’d lost their jobs. And a third of those being served, she estimates, had never needed assistance before.

“People are seeing hunger like they’ve never seen it before,” she says.

Hunger is more severe in some regions, but worsening everywhere in 2020

Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organization, projected the impact of COVID-19 on food insecurity by assuming an annual unemployment rate of 10.5 percent and a poverty rate of 14.4 percent. Many areas that had high food insecurity before the pandemic are now experiencing even greater levels of hunger.

Change in county food insecurity rate

2018–2020 (projected)

+1%

+2%

+3%

+4%

+5%

or more

+3.3%

average

North Texas

Food Bank

service area

The food insecurity rate in Atlantic County, N.J., is projected to have the biggest jump in the U.S. increasing 9.1 percentage points from 11.4% to 20.5%.

ALASKA AND HAWAII NOT TO SCALE

Food insecurity rate by county

10%

or less

15%

20%

or more

2020 food insecurity (projected)

Steele, North Dakota

6% (lowest)

Jefferson County, Mississippi

37% (highest)

2020 food insecurity (projected)

37%

30%

In 2020, the average county food insecurity rate is projected to be 17%.

20

10

0

585 counties are projected to have

food insecurity rates over 20% in 2020.

Each of the 3,142 U.S. counties is

represented by a single vertical line.

Hunger is more severe in some regions,

but worsening everywhere in 2020

Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organization, projected the impact of COVID-19 on food insecurity by assuming an annual unemploy-

ment rate of 10.5 percent and a poverty rate of 14.4 percent. Many areas that had high food insecurity before the pandemic are now experiencing even greater levels of hunger.

Change in county food insecurity rate

2018–2020 (projected)

The food insecurity rate in

Atlantic County, N.J., is projected to have the biggest jump in the U.S., increasing 9.1 percentage points from 11.4% to 20.5%.

+2%

+3%

+4%

+5% or more

+1%

+3.3%

average

North Texas

Food Bank

service area

ALASKA AND HAWAII NOT TO SCALE

Food insecurity rate by county

10%

or less

15%

20%

or more

2020 food insecurity (projected)

Steele County,

North Dakota

6% (lowest)

Jefferson County,

Mississippi

37% (highest)

2020 food insecurity (projected)

37%

Each of the 3,142 U.S.

counties is represented

by a single vertical line.

30%

In 2020, the average

county food insecurity

rate is projected to be 17%.

20

10

0

585 counties are projected to have food insecurity rates over 20% in 2020.

Hunger is more severe in some regions,

but worsening everywhere in 2020

Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organization, projected the impact of COVID-19 on food insecurity by assuming an annual unemploy-

ment rate of 10.5 percent and a poverty rate of 14.4 percent. Many areas that had high food insecurity before the pandemic are now experiencing even greater levels of hunger.

Change in county food insecurity rate

2018–2020 (projected)

+2%

+3%

+4%

+5% or more

+1%

+3.3%

average

The food insecurity rate in

Atlantic County, N.J., is projected to have the biggest jump in the U.S., increasing 9.1 percentage points from 11.4% to 20.5%.

North Texas Food Bank

service area

ALASKA AND HAWAII NOT TO SCALE

Food insecurity rate by county

10%

or less

15%

20%

or more

2018 food insecurity

2020 food insecurity (projected)

Burke County,

North Dakota

4% (lowest)

Steele County,

North Dakota

6% (lowest)

Jefferson County,

Mississippi

30% (highest)

Jefferson County,

Mississippi

37% (highest)

ALASKA AND HAWAII NOT TO SCALE

37%

2018 food insecurity

2020 food insecurity (projected)

30%

30%

30%

In 2020, the average

county food insecurity

rate is projected to be 17%.

In 2018, the average county food insecurity rate was 13%.

20

20

10

10

0

0

Each of the 3,142 U.S. counties is

represented by a single vertical line.

585 counties are projected to have food insecurity rates over 20% in 2020.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the 13 counties served by the North Texas Food Bank had measured the lowest levels of food insecurity since the 2008 recession. Today the number served has risen by almost one-third. To meet the demand, an additional 90 semi-trucks loaded with food arrive each month. Identical scenes are playing out in cities, towns, and rural regions across America—particularly where there's the most racial diversity.

Black, Native, and Hispanic communities are being disproportionately impacted

“This is a story about racial and ethnic disparities—both food insecurity and the story of coronavirus,” says Emily Engelhard, managing director of Feeding America’s research unit. “The populations and geographies that started in the most disadvantageous state of food insecurity are the ones that are getting hit the hardest.”

The most acute needs are in areas where the majority of residents are Black or Native American. Of the top 25 counties with the highest projected food insecurity rates, only four—all in Kentucky—are majority white.

Majority Black counties

Black or African American communities are the majority in 105 counties. 80% of these counties are projected to be highly food insecure in 2020.

37%

Jefferson County,

Mississippi

Highly food insecure

Food insecurity rate

30%

14%

Prince George's County,

Maryland

20

10

ALL COUNTIES

0

20.1%+

10.1-15%

15.1-20%

10% or less of the population lives in a food insecure household.

Majority Native American counties

American Indian and Alaska Native com-

munities are the majority in 28 counties. 75% of these counties are projected to be highly food insecure in 2020.

35% Kusilvak Census Area, Alaska

Highly food insecure

Food insecurity rate

30%

20

16%

North Slope Borough, Alaska

10

0

20.1%+

10.1-15%

15.1-20%

10% or less of the population lives in a food insecure household.

Majority Hispanic or Latino counties

Hispanic or Latino communities are the majority in 104 counties. 27% of these counties are projected to be highly food insecure in 2020.

28%

Zavala County,

Texas

Food insecurity rate

30%

Highly food insecure

12%

Ford County, Kansas

20

10

0

20.1%+

10.1-15%

15.1-20%

10% or less of the population lives in a food insecure household.

Majority non-Hispanic white counties

Non-Hispanic white communities are the majority in 2,773 counties. 15% of these counties are projected to be highly food insecure in 2020.

30%

Magoffin County, Kentucky

Food insecurity rate

30%

Highly food insecure

6% Steele County, North Dakota

20

10

0

20.1%+

10.1-15%

15.1-20%

10% or less of the population lives in a food insecure household.

A majority is a group that composes 50% or more of the population. 132 counties do not have a 50% majority. Asian Americans do not compose 50% or more of any county.

Majority Black counties

Black or African American communities are the majority in 105 counties. 80% of these counties are projected to be highly food insecure in 2020.

37%

Jefferson County,

Mississippi

Highly food insecure

Food insecurity rate

30%

14% of people live in food insecure households in

Prince George’s County, Maryland.

20

10

ALL

COUNTIES

0

20.1% or more

10.1-15%

15.1-20%

10% or less of the population lives in a food insecure household.

Majority Native American counties

American Indian and Alaska Native communities are the majority in 28 counties. 75% of these counties are projected to be highly food insecure in 2020.

35% Kusilvak Census Area, Alaska

Highly food insecure

Food insecurity rate

30%

16%

North Slope Borough, Alaska

20

10

0

20.1% or more

10.1-15%

15.1-20%

10% or less of the population lives in a food insecure household.

Majority Hispanic or Latino counties

Hispanic or Latino communities are the majority in 104 counties. 27% of these counties are projected to be highly food insecure in 2020.

28%

Zavala County,

Texas

Food insecurity rate

30%

Highly food insecure

20

12%

Ford County, Kansas

10

0

20.1% or more

10.1-15%

15.1-20%

10% or less of the population lives in a food insecure household.

Majority non-Hispanic white counties

Non-Hispanic white communities are the majority in 2,773 counties. 15% of these counties are projected to be highly food insecure in 2020.

30%

Magoffin County, Kentucky

Food insecurity rate

30%

Highly food insecure

20

6% Steele County, North Dakota

10

0

20.1% or more

10.1-15%

15.1-20%

10% or less of the population lives in a food insecure household.

A majority is a group that composes 50% or more of the population. 132 counties do not have a 50% majority. Asian Americans do not compose 50% or more of any county.

The image of queuing Texans conjures memories of the breadlines winding through city streets during the Great Depression, the national crisis that birthed federal safety nets like Social Security, unemployment insurance, and housing assistance. The Great Depression sparked “a measurable shift in attitudes, from rugged individualism to more cooperative means of dealing with crisis,” says David Kennedy, a history professor at Stanford University.

Still, nearly a century later, the cracks are large enough for tens of millions of Americans to slip through and pantries are running low. Food banks are waiting for the federal government to pass another stimulus package that will allow them to continue feeding Americans.

Before the pandemic, the North Texas Food Bank had aimed to distribute 92 million meals by 2025. By June, they’d already surpassed that target. Based on forecasts of the economic recovery, Cunningham expects to distribute food at this rate for the next two years. They recently ran out of food for the first time.

“Food banks were designed to be supplemental—to fill the gaps,” Cunningham says. Instead, they’ve become a crucial part of survival for millions of Americans. “There are so many more gaps in our community right now.”

Food insecurity rates provided by Feeding America. Projections for 2020 are based on analysis updated in October 2020.
The is the beginning of a multipart series of National Geographic stories chronicling hunger and food insecurity in communities across the United States.