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1 in 10 Americans are struggling to afford enough food amid the pandemic

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Volunteer holds a bag of bread to put in a car during a food distribution event giving out milk and bread to people in need in Pennsylvania on August 8, 2020. The number of people in need of food assistance has gone up as a result of the coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn.
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Over the last seven months, the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically affected millions of Americans' ability to afford the basics, including food.

About 10% of Americans, 22.3 million, reported they sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat within the past week, according to the latest Household Pulse Survey fielded between August 19 and 31, 2020 and released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

The current rate of food insecurity, which is when you don't have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable food, is several times higher than reported last year. Only about 3.7% of Americans reported they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat throughout 2019, according to a new USDA report also released Wednesday

While the comparison is not quite "apples to apples" because the USDA is asking about the last year and the Pulse Survey is asking about the past seven days, it is worth noting the increase in overall food insecurity, says Joseph Llobrera, director of research for the food assistance team at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"The comparison is actually conservative," Llobrera says. "If the Pulse [survey] was to ask about the last six months, or since the start of the pandemic, it would probably pick up quite a bit."

Overall, American families are particularly affected. About 14% of adults living with children reported that the kids in their household sometimes or often didn't eat enough over the past week because the family couldn't afford it. That's particularly concerning given that parents and guardians generally try to protect children from going hungry, usually cutting down their own portions first. When households report that children aren't getting enough to eat, it indicates that the food insecurity is more pronounced, according to CBPP researchers.

In fact, 24% of parents reported being worried in July that if their children did not return to school full-time in the fall, they would not be able to provide enough food for them to eat at home, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's July health tracking poll of over 1,100 U.S. adults.

"People are struggling out there," Llobrera says. "These are historic levels of hardship." 

Wednesday's release of the Pulse survey is the first since the Census Bureau paused its weekly polling efforts in July. For the week ending July 21, the survey found that about 12% of adults were sometimes or often going without enough food.

But the latest data is not comparable to the survey responses that were generated from April and continued through late July, Llobrera says. It's not accurate to interpret the latest updates as actual changes in households' circumstances, but instead should be attributed to changes to the survey itself.

That's because the Census Bureau made updates to the survey, including changing the length and the wording of questions. The changes led to a higher number of respondents declining to answer various questions, particularly questions asked later in the survey. 

What to do if you're facing food insecurity 

Despite the changes to the survey, it's clear that there's been an "explosion" in the number of households who are having difficulty affording food since the pandemic started, says Brynne Keith-Jennings, a senior CBPP research analyst. That means many Americans may turn to food assistance programs and organizations like food pantries. 

If you're facing food insecurity, here are some resources to consider: 

Check out: Americans spend over $5,000 a year on groceries—save hundreds at supermarkets with these cards

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