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Food insecurity rates have more than doubled since start of COVID-19 pandemic

Parker Miles Blohm
KNKX (file)
Members of the National Guard helped distribute food for the Northwest Harvest early in the pandemic. Here, one member boxes up food in April.

Since the onset of the pandemic, food insecurity rates have more than doubled in our state. That’s according to researchers at the University of Washington who have just compiled the results from their first round of a statewide survey. 

It was done this summer in cooperation with Washington State University and Tacoma Community College, as well as partners in local, county and state governments.

It found that about 30 percent of state residents are now at risk of going hungry, up from about 14 percent pre-pandemic. And the study shows that 59 percent of those who are now food insecure are parents — and high percentages share other traits that make them more vulnerable.

“So what we're really seeing is that individuals with low or very low food security are more likely to have children in the home,” said Jennifer Otten, a University of Washington professor of nutritional who co-led the research.

“They're more likely to be lower income. They're more likely to have less than a college education, and they're more likely to be people of color,” she said of those who are at risk of going hungry.

None of that was particularly surprising, Otten says of the top-line findings, because it mirrors similar data coming from other states.

“What we thought we would see, though, was greater use of food assistance,” she said.

Instead, their survey shows use of food banks going from about 13 percent pre-pandemic to just 15 percent this summer. And the use of federal benefits such as SNAP and WIC actually went down (from 18 to 14 percent and 5 to 2 percent, respectively.) Otten thinks that’s because it took a while for these programs to shift to allow for shopping or qualification meetings online. And she expects that shift would show up as increasing use in future months.

“I've been really impressed by how nimble they've been and how they continue to really be dynamic and responding to it to the needs of the community,” Ottens said of federal programs.

But she says there’s still a lot that can be done to improve access. And it will be needed as cuts to federal income assistance kick in. State officials expect that food banks will see demand spike between October and December. Otten’s team is seeking funding for another round of surveys to start in October.

They are still working to compile their results by ZIP code.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to