24% of Mass. residents facing food insecurity

Impact falls heaviest on black, Hispanic, young residents

NEARLY A QUARTER of Massachusetts residents (24 percent) say they have either struggled to provide enough food for their family or have gotten food from a food bank since the coronavirus crisis began, according to a new poll released this week by the MassINC Polling Group.

These measures of food insecurity are more common among certain groups already vulnerable to the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus. Roughly half of black and Hispanic residents (51 percent each) say they have struggled to provide food for their family or received food from a food bank. Among those living in the lowest-income households, 42 percent report similar challenges. Young people (41 percent) are also disproportionately affected. 

Many of the cities and towns in Massachusetts hardest hit by the coronavirus are Gateway Cities. These cities already face economic challenges and many have a higher proportion of minority residents than the state overall. The coronavirus crisis has compounded economic distress in these communities, and food insecurity is no exception. Roughly a third of residents in Gateway Cities (34 percent ) say they have struggled to provide food for their family or received food from a food bank since the coronavirus crisis began, compared with 20 percent of residents elsewhere in the state.

For some of these residents, the economic crisis created by COVID-19 has forced them into excruciating choices. The survey tracks whether renters and homeowners have been able to make their payments for April, May, and June*. As expected, a large proportion of those who have missed a payment (64 percent) also report difficulty providing enough food for their family or receiving food from a food bank. But even among those who have made all their housing payments, 17 percent say they have faced food insecurity during this time. This suggests some residents may be sacrificing food in order to meet other financial obligations.

As might be expected, those who are unemployed are particularly susceptible to food insecurity; 35 percent of those who have been furloughed, are looking for work, or who are unemployed and not looking have been to a food bank or otherwise struggled to put food on the table. That figure ticks upward for part-time employees (41 percent), who are also more likely to be young, racial minorities, and lower-income. Full-time workers are doing better, but even among them, 19 percent say they have struggled to provide their families with enough food or received food from a food bank since the coronavirus crisis began. These results indicate the reality that holding a job and receiving a paycheck during this time is still not enough to put food on the table for many Massachusetts residents.

Even as the state begins to re-open, it is not clear that families will be able to quickly regain their footing. With the additional unemployment benefits set to end in July and the state moratorium on evictions due to expire in August, residents may be in a financial lurch for months to come. Recognizing the unprecedented circumstances and a surge in applications to food assistance programs like SNAP and WIC, the Baker-Polito administration recently announced $56 million in relief funding toward food insecurity.

Still, the current portrait of food insecurity in our state is alarming. In stark fashion, it highlights the all-too-familiar racial and socioeconomic divides of our communities. It also offers a glimpse of the hard choices many residents face between paying their bills or providing food for their families, and the frustration they must feel that even employment does not ensure groceries. It is clear that the economic havoc wreaked by the coronavirus extends to the kitchen table.

Meet the Author

Maeve Duggan

Research director, MassINC Polling Group
The poll of 1,531 Massachusetts residents was conducted by the MassINC Polling Group online frim May 20-25, 2020, and was sponsored by The Boston Foundation, Preservation of Affordable Housing, The Community Builders, Trinity Financial, Beacon Communities & WinnCompanies.

*As the survey was fielded in May, respondents were asked if they had made or missed their April and May rent/mortgage payments and whether they expected to make/miss their upcoming June payment. The data presented here reflects any renter or homeowner with a mortgage who missed at least part of their April or May payment or expected to miss at least part of their June payment.