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Introduction

As of mid-September 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 25,000 New Yorkers and sickened an additional 445,000.[1] A more hidden impact of the pandemic is its effect on food security. Mass losses in employment in the State have curtailed New Yorkers’ ability to afford food. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures have also cut off reliable pathways to food access, such as meals provided in community settings (e.g., houses of worship) or schools. Many New Yorkers have been forced to choose between their need for food and their own sense of safety, given the risks of contracting or spreading COVID-19 while accessing food during the pandemic.

This report reviews self-reported survey data related to food scarcity in New York State during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic. It presents food scarcity rates by race and ethnicity, age, and household income, as well as compares New York State with neighboring states. Rates are also shown for households with and without children. It assesses how different groups of New Yorkers are accessing free meals and groceries and from which access points (e.g., school programs, food pantries). Finally, it measures how New Yorkers have used or plan to use their federal Economic Impact Payment—known as stimulus checks—for food-related expenses.

Data from this report come the COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey, an experimental data product designed by the U.S. Census Bureau in collaboration with multiple federal agencies. The survey provided near real-time data on household experiences during the coronavirus pandemic from April 23, 2020 until July 21, 2020. See Methods for more details on the survey and how rates are developed for this report.

[1] New York State Department of Health. “NYSDOH COVID-19 Tracker.” Accessed September 2020. https://covid19tracker.health.ny.gov

Key Findings

  • From April through June 2020, approximately 1 in 10 New Yorkers reported household food scarcity in the prior week. There was an uptick in food scarcity in July, when the rate surpassed 12%. The food scarcity rate in New York State was generally consistent with the national rate, but higher than those reported in neighboring states. The food scarcity rate is defined as the percentage of the adult population in households that either sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the last seven days.[1]
  • A larger proportion of households with children experienced food scarcity than households without children.
  • There are stark disparities in food scarcity by race and ethnicity. Between 17% and 25% of Hispanic New Yorkers and 15% and 22% of Black New Yorkers experienced household food scarcity over the survey period.[2] These percentages were three to four times higher than among white New Yorkers.
  • Rates of household food scarcity were higher for younger (18 to 34 years) and middle-aged adults (35 to 64 years), as compared with the elderly population (65 years and older).
  • Food scarcity is increasingly affecting households that did not struggle to access food prior to the pandemic. At the start of the survey period, nearly a quarter of adults in households with food scarcity reported being food sufficient prior to the pandemic, but by July, that figure had risen to more than one-third of respondents. Food sufficiency prior to the pandemic is defined as a household having enough of the kinds of food wanted or having enough food, but not always the kind wanted, before March 13, 2020.
  • Mass losses in employment have likely contributed to increases in food scarcity. In July, nearly 60% of New Yorkers reported that they or someone in their household had lost employment income since the start of the pandemic. The rate of food scarcity was higher for those who reported lost household employment income during the pandemic, in comparison with those who did not (in July, more than 17% compared with 5%).
  • The federal Economic Impact Payments—known as stimulus checks—did not appear to make much difference in the food scarcity rate for those who reported lost employment income. This raises concern that benefit programs such as stimulus checks and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance may not be adequate to keep some New Yorkers food sufficient.
  • Nearly three-quarters of New Yorkers reported in July that their household had spent or was planning on spending their stimulus check in whole or in part on food-related expenses—more than any other expense category.
  • In July, nearly 11% of New Yorkers reported that their households were accessing free meals or groceries. School programs and food pantries were the most-used access points. If free meal and grocery programs were not available, rates of food scarcity would likely be higher, especially among communities of color.
[1] U.S. Census Bureau. “Household Pulse Survey Interactive Tool.” Accessed September 2020. https://www.census.gov/data-tools/demo/hhp/#/?measures=FIR
[2] To analyze adults by race/ethnicity, we categorized adults with an ethnicity of Hispanic identified in the data as Hispanic. We categorized adults with an ethnicity of Non-Hispanic as Black only, Asian only, or white only, according to their race code identified in the data. Adults with a race identified in the data as “Other or two or more races” were excluded from analyses by race/ethnicity because of low sample sizes.

Food Scarcity

Overall

  • About 1 in 10 New Yorkers reported household food scarcity in the prior week from April through June, with the rate slightly increasing in July to more than 12% (see Figure 1). The food scarcity rate is defined as the percentage of the adult population that either sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in their household in the last seven days.
  • Nearly 80% of New Yorkers who reported household food scarcity in July said they did not have enough to eat because they could not afford to buy more food (data not shown).
  • There are stark disparities in food scarcity by race and ethnicity. Between 17% and 25% of Hispanic New Yorkers and 15% and 22% of Black New Yorkers experienced food scarcity in the prior week over the survey period. These rates were three to four times higher than among white New Yorkers. (see ”Race/Ethnicity” tab within Figure 1)
  • Rates of food scarcity were higher among younger (18 to 34 years old) and middle-aged adults (35 to 64 years old), ranging from 8% to 18% over the survey period, in comparison with adults 65 years and older whose food scarcity rates ranged from 2% to 6% (see “Age” tab within Figure 1).
  • Higher food scarcity was associated with lower incomes. Self-reported food scarcity rates consistently surpassed 20% for households reporting less than $25,000 per year in income; households reporting annual income of $100,000 or more were consistently associated with food scarcity levels below 5% (see “Income” tab within Figure 1).[1]
  • Compared with neighboring states, rates of food scarcity were highest in New York State. New York State had similar food scarcity rates to the national average, though it surpassed the national rate in July (see “State” tab within Figure 1).
[1] Household income is defined as total 2019 household income before taxes.

Food Scarcity

Among Households with Children

  • Throughout the survey period, a larger proportion of households with children reported experiencing food scarcity than households without children.[1] In July, about 15% of New Yorkers living in a household with at least one child reported food scarcity, compared with approximately 11% of New Yorkers living in a household without children (see Figure 2).
  • Across race/ethnicity groups, age groups, and income groups, households with children generally experienced greater food scarcity than comparable households without children (see tabs within Figure 2).
  • As with overall food scarcity rates, households with children in New York State generally had similar rates of food scarcity as the national rate; New York’s rates were consistently high, relative to neighboring states (see “State” tab within Figure 2).
[1] Households with children are defined as households where at least one person under the age of 18 lives in the household.

Food Scarcity

Newly Food Scarce

  • Many households that were food sufficient prior to the pandemic have newly slipped into food scarcity during the pandemic. At the start of the survey period, nearly a quarter of adults in households with food scarcity in the prior week had been food sufficient before the pandemic. By July, more than one-third of those reporting food scarcity in the prior week had been food sufficient before the pandemic (see Figure 3). Food sufficient is defined as a household having enough of the kinds of food wanted or having enough food, but not always the kind wanted.
  • In general, a larger proportion of Asian and white adults in food-scarce households during the survey period reported being newly food scarce relative to Hispanic and Black adults. Thus, although a lower proportion of Asian and white New Yorkers reported food scarcity, they were more likely to be newly food scarce (see “Race/Ethnicity” tab within Figure 3).
  • Since the end of June, food-scarce adults ages 18–34 have become the most likely age group to report being newly food scarce (see “Age” tab within Figure 3).
  • By July, food-scarce adults in the higher household income groups were generally more likely to be newly food scarce (see “Income” tab within Figure 3).
  • A smaller proportion of food-scarce households in New York State reported being newly food scarce during the pandemic, as compared with people in neighboring states (see “State” tab within Figure 3).

Employment Income Loss

Overall

  • Mass losses in employment are likely a contributor to the increase in food scarcity among previously food-sufficient New Yorkers.
  • In July, nearly 60% of New Yorkers reported a loss in household employment income since the start of the pandemic (see Figure 4).
  • People of color, young adults (ages 18 to 34), and New Yorkers with lower household incomes were the groups most likely to have lost household employment income during the pandemic (see tabs within Figure 4).
  • Compared with neighboring states, New York State had the highest rates of household employment income loss during the pandemic for nearly every week (see “State” tab within Figure 4).

Employment Income Loss

Loss of Employment Income and Food Scarcity

  • In July, approximately 17% of New Yorkers who reported a loss in household employment income since the start of the pandemic were food scarce in the prior week (see Figure 5). Rates were highest for New Yorkers of color, younger and middle-aged adults, and those with lower household incomes (see tabs within Figure 5).
  • Benefit programs such as federal Economic Impact Payments (stimulus checks) and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance are intended to assist those who lost income as a result of COVID-19, including meeting their food needs. The fact that rates of food scarcity were higher for New Yorkers who reported a loss of household employment income since the start of the pandemic indicates that these benefits may not be adequate to keep some New Yorkers food sufficient. For example, receiving a stimulus check did not significantly reduce food scarcity rates among adults who lost household employment income (see Figure 6a). See the next section for more details on New Yorkers’ use of stimulus checks.
  • Losing household employment income appeared to have the largest effect on food scarcity among Black New Yorkers, relative to any other race or ethnicity. In July, Black New Yorkers who lost household employment income during the pandemic had food scarcity rates 6.6 times higher than their counterparts who had not lost household employment income (28.4% as compared with 4.3%). This differential was approximately four times higher than among other races and ethnicities (see “Race/Ethnicity” tab within Figure 6b).
  • In July, younger and middle-aged New Yorkers (i.e., those ages 18 to 64 years old) who lost household employment income during the pandemic reported a larger proportion of food scarcity than those who did not report employment income loss. In contrast, employment income loss did not appear to be as associated with food scarcity for the elderly. This may be in part because many older New Yorkers above the age of 65 are less likely to be actively employed (see “Age” tab within Figure 6b).
  • New Yorkers with a household income below $100,000 in 2019 and who lost household employment income during the pandemic had food scarcity rates in July more than three times higher than their counterparts who had not lost household employment income. In comparison, New Yorkers with a household income of $100,000 or greater appeared to be more protected against the loss of household employment income, as food scarcity rates were similar for those with and without reported household employment income loss (1.6% as compared with 1.4%) (see “Income” tab within Figure 6b).

Employment Income Loss

Stimulus Spending on Food

  • In mid-April, the Internal Revenue Service began issuing Economic Impact Payments—commonly known as stimulus checks—to eligible residents nationwide. From May through June, approximately 80% of New Yorkers reported receiving or planning to receive a stimulus check (data not shown).
  • Almost three-quarters of New Yorkers who lived in households that received or planned to receive a stimulus check reported in July that they had spent or were planning on spending their check in whole or in part on food-related expenses—more than any other expense category (see Figure 7).

Free Meal and Grocery Programs

Overall

  • Many New Yorkers have turned to free meal and grocery programs to help meet their food needs during the pandemic.
  • At the start of the survey period, about 8% of New Yorkers reported that their household accessed free meals or groceries in the prior week. By July, nearly 11% of New Yorkers lived in a household that was using free meals or groceries (see Figure 8).
  • Hispanic and Black adults were consistently more likely to report that their households accessed free meals or groceries in the prior week over the survey period. In July, more than 15% of Black adults and 20% of Hispanic adults reported that their household accessed free meals or groceries, compared with approximately 10% of Asian adults and 5% of white adults (see “Race/Ethnicity” tab within Figure 8).
  • If free meal and grocery programs were not available to New Yorkers, overall rates of food scarcity would likely be much higher, especially among communities of color.

Free Meal and Grocery Programs

By Access Point

  • At the beginning of the survey period, nearly half of New Yorkers in households accessing free meals or groceries received food from school programs. That share decreased to approximately one-third in July (see Figure 9a). This is in part likely a result of reductions in the number of New York City’s school-based meal hubs that began providing grab-and-go free meals to all New Yorkers at the start of the pandemic.
  • Use of pantries as a source of free meals and groceries increased over time, matching the level of school programs by July (see Figure 9a). This may have been influenced by the launch of the Nourish New York Program in May, which provided $25 million from the State’s special public health emergency fund for food banks and emergency food providers.[1]
  • There were differences in where people accessed free food and groceries by race and ethnicity. In July, Black New Yorkers were most likely to identify friends/family/neighbors and pantries as their household access points for free food and groceries. Meanwhile, Hispanic and white New Yorkers were most likely to identify school programs and pantries, and Asian New Yorkers were most likely to identify school programs (see Figure 9b).
  • By July, young adult and middle-aged adult New Yorkers reported their households accessed free food and groceries through school programs and pantries more than any other source. Home delivery was cited most frequently by elderly adults (see Figure 9c).
  • There were also differences in where New Yorkers reported accessing free food and groceries by household income levels. By July, school programs were most frequently identified as access points for those in households with incomes less than $25,000 as well as those with income of $100,000 or greater. Pantries were the most frequent access points cited by those in households with incomes between $25,000 and $99,999 (see Figure 9d).
[1] New York Department of Agriculture and Markets. “New York State Provides Additional Details on $25 Million in Funding for Food Banks Through Nourish New York Initiative.” Accessed September 2020. https://agriculture.ny.gov/news/new-york-state-provides-additional-details-25-million-funding-food-banks-through-nourish-new

Methods

Data

The data used for the analysis are part of the COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey, an experimental data product designed by the U.S. Census Bureau in collaboration with multiple federal agencies. The data are available from:

U.S. Census Bureau. “Household Pulse Survey Public Use File.” Accessed September 2020. https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/household-pulse-survey/datasets.html.

The survey is designed to provide near real-time data on household experiences during the coronavirus pandemic across all states to inform federal and state recovery planning. Data collection began on April 23, 2020, and was released on a weekly basis for 90 days, until July 21, 2020. Households were contacted via email and/or mobile phone number to complete an internet questionnaire.

Only adults were surveyed. The Census Bureau drew the sampling frame from the Census Bureau Master Address File, supplemented by the Census Bureau Contact Frame. The Census Bureau weighted the survey responses to account for nonresponse. This weighting also adjusted the survey responses to be more representative of demographic distributions—including by educational attainment, sex, age, and race and ethnicity—in each state. Weighted data were used in the analysis based on the weights provided by the Census Bureau.

The unweighted counts of weekly responses in New York State are displayed in Table 1 below. More information on the survey design, including the survey instrument, are available from:

Fields J.F., Hunter-Childs J., Tersine A., Sisson J., Parker E., Velkoff V., Logan C., and Shin H. “Design and Operation of the 2020 Household Pulse Survey.” U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed September 2020. https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/demo/technical-documentation/hhp/2020_HPS_Background.pdf.

Methods

Calculation of Rates

Throughout the report, rates are calculated as the percentage of the applicable (weighted) population that self-reported a certain attribute (e.g., being food scarce or having experienced a loss of employment income). Although the survey was conducted on a weekly basis and results were reported as such by the Census Bureau, we reported results for a rolling 3-week basis (note that the “Week 1” survey responses actually spanned more than one week, April 23–May 5, 2020). This was done to increase the sample size associated with each estimate and smooth out weekly variation in estimates that may be a result of small sample sizes, particularly when reporting results on subgroups of the population.

Responses for each of the three-week periods were combined without any additional weighting. For example, responses across the June 4–June 9, June 11–June 16, and June 18–June 23 survey time frames were combined in our analysis for the June 4–June 23 results. Aside from the application of the survey weights supplied by the Census Bureau to make the results more generalizable to the full New York State population, no additional weighting was applied in the development of the rates for this analysis. See the Census Bureau website for more details on the specific weeks that the survey was conducted:

U.S. Census Bureau. “Household Pulse Survey Public Use File.” Accessed September 2020. https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/household-pulse-survey/datasets.html.

Methods

Categorizations

Adults who responded that their household “sometimes” did not have enough to eat or “often” did not have enough to eat in the prior seven days were categorized as food scarce. Adults who responded that their households had “enough of the kinds of food wanted” or “enough, but not always the kinds of food wanted” prior to March 13, 2020, were categorized as food sufficient prior to March 13, 2020.

Note that the food scarcity question on the Household Pulse Survey asks about the availability of food within the last week. A common approach for assessing food scarcity issues—typically referred to as food insecurity—asks about the availability of food over the prior 12 months. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports such results, which are also used by food advocacy organizations such as Feeding America.[1]  The USDA food insecurity research takes into account several facets of food availability, including cost barriers, consistency of food access issues, and the impact on mental and physical wellbeing. Given these differences in methods, it can be expected that the food scarcity rates reported here would differ from more traditional food insecurity estimates.

To analyze adults by race/ethnicity, we categorized adults with an ethnicity of Hispanic identified in the data as Hispanic. We categorized adults with an ethnicity of Non-Hispanic as Black only, Asian only, or white only, according to their race code identified in the data. Adults with a race identified in the data as “Other or two or more races” were excluded from analyses by race/ethnicity as a result of low counts.

Adults were categorized into age groups based on the birth year provided in the data. Since month and date of birth were not collected from survey respondents, ages were treated as the respondent’s age as of December 31, 2020.

Household income is defined in the survey as total 2019 household income before taxes. Loss of household employment income since the start of the pandemic is defined as an adult or someone in their household experiencing a loss of employment income since March 13, 2020. Free meal access points are defined in greater detail in Table 2.

[1] Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Matthew P. Rabbitt, Christian A. Gregory, and Anita Singh. 2019. “Household Food Security in the United States in 2018.” United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Report Number 270. Accessed September 2020. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/94849/err-270.pdf?v=963.1#:~:text=In%202018%2C%2088.9%20percent%20of,to%20a%20lack%20of%20resources.

Limitations

Confidence intervals are not provided with the estimates. Although we attempted to improve the reliability of estimates by developing estimates based on three time periods of data, readers should interpret the precision of the estimates with caution, particularly those for subgroups of the New York State population. Rather than focusing on specific point estimates, these data are most useful for understanding the persistence of patterns over time, including the identification of changes in the direction of trends (e.g., persistent increases followed by persistent decreases), and the relativeness of estimates of one group in comparison with another (e.g., persistent patterns of differences in estimates by race).

As with most surveys, biases can occur in the survey estimates. The Census Bureau has identified certain biases as a result of measurement error, coverage error, nonresponse error, and processing errors that could have occurred in the administration of the COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey.[1]

Some of the errors may have been more likely to occur because the COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey was meant to provide near real-time information during the pandemic. This meant there was limited time for testing questions to help ensure that survey questions were consistently clear to respondents. For example, it may be possible that respondents did not have a common understanding of what “before March 13th” meant for certain questions (i.e., immediately before versus anytime in the past). As another example, respondents who received free food through school-based meal programs in New York City via delivery may have categorized such programs as either a school-based program, a home-delivery program, or both. Processing errors (e.g., incorrect coding of data) may have also been more likely because of the rapid timeline.

Coverage error may have occurred as households were invited to participate in the survey via cellphone and email. New Yorkers without cellphones, computers, or internet access therefore may have been underrepresented. For example, this likely influenced the low response for “shelter” as a food access point, as New Yorkers in shelters may be less likely to have access to this technology.

Also, the response rate for the Household Pulse Survey was substantially lower than many other federally sponsored surveys, which would make it more susceptible to nonresponse error. Although the federal government employs quality-control procedures to minimize certain biases, the extent of such biases has not yet been evaluated for the COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey.

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.  “Reduced Access to Care: Household Pulse Survey.” Accessed September 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/pulse/reduced-access-to-care.htm.

Limitations

Confidence intervals are not provided with the estimates. Although we attempted to improve the reliability of estimates by developing estimates based on three time periods of data, readers should interpret the precision of the estimates with caution, particularly those for subgroups of the New York State population. Rather than focusing on specific point estimates, these data are most useful for understanding the persistence of patterns over time, including the identification of changes in the direction of trends (e.g., persistent increases followed by persistent decreases), and the relativeness of estimates of one group in comparison with another (e.g., persistent patterns of differences in estimates by race).

As with most surveys, biases can occur in the survey estimates. The Census Bureau has identified certain biases as a result of measurement error, coverage error, nonresponse error, and processing errors that could have occurred in the administration of the COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey.[1]

Some of the errors may have been more likely to occur because the COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey was meant to provide near real-time information during the pandemic. This meant there was limited time for testing questions to help ensure that survey questions were consistently clear to respondents. For example, it may be possible that respondents did not have a common understanding of what “before March 13th” meant for certain questions (i.e., immediately before versus anytime in the past). As another example, respondents who received free food through school-based meal programs in New York City via delivery may have categorized such programs as either a school-based program, a home-delivery program, or both. Processing errors (e.g., incorrect coding of data) may have also been more likely because of the rapid timeline.

Coverage error may have occurred as households were invited to participate in the survey via cellphone and email. New Yorkers without cellphones, computers, or internet access therefore may have been underrepresented. For example, this likely influenced the low response for “shelter” as a food access point, as New Yorkers in shelters may be less likely to have access to this technology.

Also, the response rate for the Household Pulse Survey was substantially lower than many other federally sponsored surveys, which would make it more susceptible to nonresponse error. Although the federal government employs quality-control procedures to minimize certain biases, the extent of such biases has not yet been evaluated for the COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey.

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.  “Reduced Access to Care: Household Pulse Survey.” Accessed September 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/pulse/reduced-access-to-care.htm.