Auburn University at Montgomery-led research project finds food insecurity increased for Alabamians during COVID-19 pandemic

An Auburn University at Montgomery-led research project exploring food access and security in the state found that more Alabamians have experienced food insecurity and adjusted their food buying habits since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

AUM Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Deanne Allegro served as the lead researcher for the Alabama study, which is part of a National Food Access and COVID Research Team (NFACT) effort to obtain a comprehensive understanding of how COVID has disrupted food access and security.

Deanne Allegro

“We have never before experienced a pandemic of this magnitude in our lifetime and immediately the response affected food access and availability for almost everyone,” Allegro said. “Parts of Alabama already experience high rates of food insecurity and limited food access. Understanding who was most greatly affected, how they were affected, and what responses provided the most relief are critical to finding solutions and improving responses in the future.”

With researchers from Auburn University’s Department of Department of Nutrition, Dietetics, & Hospitality Management and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System at Auburn University, Allegro began surveying Alabamians about their experiences with food insecurity in June 2020 over a five-week period through social media, media coverage and community partners. The survey included a standardized set of U.S. Department of Agriculture questions.

At the close of the survey, 1,290 Alabamians shared their views on food security, perceived impacts, concerns related to food access and food behaviors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifty percent of those respondents indicated they came from households with incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, with 65 percent also sharing they have a degree higher than high school.

The racial makeup of respondents varied with 79 percent identifying as white and 13 percent black. Sixty-two percent of all respondents reported living in rural areas in the state.

“We found that overall food insecurity has increased, affecting families with children at greater rates than those without,” Allegro said. “Respondents who identified as white experienced food insecurity at lower rates than any other racial group and were less likely to have their food security affected.”

According to the survey, respondents reported a 52 percent increase in food insecurity since the coronavirus outbreak began in Alabama. Of those respondents, 25 percent reported experiencing food insecurity in the last year and 38 percent reported experiencing food insecurity since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020.

To adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, Alabamians are using a variety of strategies to ensure access to food, the survey found. Forty-seven percent of respondents indicated they are at least somewhat likely to buy foods that don’t go bad quickly while 41 percent would buy different, cheaper foods and 27 percent would stretch the food they have by eating less.

Respondents also indicated changing how they accessed food during the pandemic. Food delivery increased 49 percent while the use of programs that give food, such as food pantries, increased by 44 percent, the survey found. Seventy-eight percent of respondents altogether reduced grocery trips to avoid exposure to the COVID-19.

“We see that Alabamians’ food purchasing behaviors have changed significantly in response to COVID,” Allegro said. “We also discovered these changes occurred while nearly half of respondents experienced some sort of job disruption in their household due to COVID.” The survey found that 10 percent of respondents experienced being furloughed, 28 percent saw a reduction of hours and 15 percent experienced job loss.

Survey respondents also indicated they worried most about food becoming unaffordable or unavailable. The survey found the most helpful actions for meeting Alabamians’ food needs would be increased trust in the safety of going to stores, more or different food in stores, and extra money to help pay for food or bills, according to respondents.

Allegro said the research team is currently working to publish and share the survey’s findings with key community and state stakeholders to help address food insecurity issues in Alabama. The team has partnered with the Alabama Department of Public Health, Montgomery Area Food Bank, and other community organizations to get the word out across the state, she said.

“We hope that by sharing our results with community organizations and policy makers, they will have information they need to create programs and policies to better address food insecurity in the state of Alabama,” she said.

For a complete brief of the survey’s findings and respondent demographics, visit https://www.aces.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Poilcy-Brief-1_AL-Food-Security-and-Access-During-COVID-19.pdf.

For the National and Alabama Policy Brief, visit https://www.nfactresearch.org/policy-briefs.