2 in 10 Americans Don't Have Enough to Eat or the Foods They Want: Poll

Approximately two out of every 10 Americans said they don't have enough to eat, or the foods they want, a poll from Impact Genome and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found.

The poll found 23 percent of Americans struggle to get enough food, and while most facing food insecurity enrolled in government or nonprofit food assistance programs in the past year, 58 percent still had difficulty accessing at least one service, the Associated Press reported.

Additionally, 21 percent of adults struggling to meet their food needs were unable to access any assistance at all. The most common challenge found was a lack of awareness of eligibility for both government and nonprofit services.

Radha Muthiah, president of the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, said the pandemic suddenly caused many families without experience in managing food insecurity to suddenly be in need of assistance.

"It's all new to them," she said. "Many individuals and families — especially those experiencing food insecurity for the first time — are unaware of their full range of options."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Food Insecurity COVID-19
A recent poll found that 23 percent of Americans reported not having enough food or being unable to get the foods they wanted. Volunteers load free groceries into cars for people experiencing food insecurity due to the coronavirus pandemic, December 1, 2020 in Los Angeles. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

The poll results paint an overall picture of a country where hundreds of thousands of households found themselves suddenly plunged into food insecurity due to the economic disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. They often found themselves navigating the intimidating bureaucracy of government assistance programs and with limited knowledge of local food banks or other charitable options available.

Black and Hispanic Americans, Americans living below the federal poverty line and younger adults are especially likely to face food challenges, according to the poll.

Americans who have a hard time affording food also feel less confident than others about their ability to get healthy food. Just 27 percent say they are "very" or "extremely" confident, compared with 87 percent of those who do not face food challenges.

For homemaker Acacia Barraza in Los Lunas, a rural town outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, the challenge has been to find a steady supply of fresh fruits and vegetables for her 2-year-old son while staying inside the family budget.

Barraza, 34, quit her job as a waitress before the pandemic when her son was born. She considered going back to work, but on-and-off child care shortages as the pandemic took hold made that impossible, she said. The family lives off her husband's salary as a mechanic while receiving assistance from SNAP — the government program commonly known as food stamps.

Despite the government help, Barraza said she still scrambles to find affordable sources of fresh vegetables, actively scouring local markets for bargains such as a bag of fresh spinach for $2.99.

"If we don't always have vegetables, he's going to not want to eat them in the future. And then I worry that he's not going to get enough vitamins from vegetables in the future or now for his growing body. So it's really hard. It's just really hard," she said.

Even those who didn't lose income during the pandemic find themselves stretching their food dollars at the end of the month. Trelecia Mornes of Fort Worth, Texas, works as a telephone customer service representative, so she was able to work from home without interruption.

She makes too much money to qualify for SNAP, but not enough to easily feed the family.

She decided to do distance learning with her three children home because of fears about COVID-19 outbreaks in the schools, so that removed school lunches from the equation. Her work responsibilities prevent her from picking up free lunches offered by the school district. She takes care of her disabled brother, who lives with them and does receive SNAP benefits. But Mornes said that $284 a month "lasts about a week and a half."

They try to eat healthy, but budget considerations sometimes lead her to prioritize cost and longevity with "canned soups, maybe noodles — things that last and aren't so expensive," she said.

Many are leery of engaging directly with government programs such as SNAP and WIC — the parallel government food-assistance program that helps mothers and children. Muthiah said that reluctance often stems from either frustration with the paperwork or, among immigrant communities, fear of endangering their immigration status or green card applications.

The poll shows that overall, about 1 in 8 Americans regularly get their food from convenience stores, which typically offer less nutritious food at higher prices. That experience is more common among Americans facing food challenges, with about 1 in 5 frequenting convenience stores.

The dependence on convenience stores is a particularly troubling dynamic, Muthiah said, because the options there are both more expensive and generally less nutritious. Part of the issue is simply habit, but a much larger problem is the lack of proper grocery stores in "food deserts" that exist in poorer parts of many cities.

"Sometimes they are the only quick efficient option for many people to get food," she said. "But they don't get the full range of what they need from a convenience store and that leads to a lot of negative health outcomes."

The poll shows half of Americans facing food challenges say extra money to help pay for food or bills is necessary for meeting their food needs.

Fewer consider reliable transportation or enough free food to last a few days, such as in emergency food packages, or free prepared meals at a soup kitchen or school to be necessary resources for meeting their food needs, though majorities say these would be helpful.

Food Assistance
A recent poll by the Associated Press found that 23 percent of Americans reported not having enough to eat or not having access to foods they wanted. Barrios Unidos president Lupe Salazar pushes a dolly filled with canned food ahead of a food drive on Thursday, September 23, 2021, in Chimayó, New Mexico. Cedar Attanasio/AP Photo