LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Food insecurity remains a significant public health concern in Los Angeles County and appears to have gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, with communities of color being hit hardest, according to a new report from the county health department.

The report — titled "Food Insecurity in Los Angeles County/Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic" — examines a wide range of data from 2018 through 2020.

The county was hit particularly hard economically during the crisis, with the unemployment rate increasing to 19.4% in June 2020, compared to 14.9% in the state and 11.1% nationally.

"The loss of jobs and associated income contributed to increased levels of food insecurity and deepened existing racial and economic inequities caused by a reduced access to healthy food," the report says.

The reports also notes that, while food insecurity — defined as having limited or uncertain access to enough affordable and nutritious food to live an active, healthy life — was trending downward prior to 2020, "deep racial and economic disparities in access to and affordability of healthy food persisted."

Among the data highlighted in the report for 2020:

  • 34% of all households in LA County, across all income groups, experienced food insecurity at some point between April and December
  • Latinos experienced the highest rate of food insecurity (40%), followed by African Americans (39%), Asians (28%), and Non-Hispanic Whites (21%)
  • Between 14.7% and 26.7% of LA County households were likely to be eligible for CalFresh but were not enrolled in the program as of July
  • People who experienced food insecurity were almost twice as likely to have been infected with COVID-19 (11.6%) as those who were food secure (6.4%)

Meanwhile, data from 2018 showed:

  • Among households in LA County with incomes less than 300% of the Federal Poverty Level (that is, incomes less than $73,000 a year for a family of four), 26.8%, or 516,000 households, experienced food insecurity
  • Households with children had higher levels of food insecurity (28.1%) than households without children (26.1%)
  • Among those living in food insecure households, 67.3% were Latino, 13.9% were white, 11.9% were African American and 6.2% were Asian
  • the rate of obesity (36.9%), type 2 diabetes (17%), hypertension (30.4%), high cholesterol (30.4%) and depression (23.9%) were higher among adults living in food insecure households than those living in food secure households (29.6%, 11.8%, 24.2%, 25.6% and 8.4%, respectively)

"Food insecurity is a serious public health problem as food insecure individuals face barriers to consuming healthy food, and, due to excess intake of calories, saturated fats, salt, and added sugars, are at increased risk for many diet-related chronic conditions," the report says. "In addition, when food insecurity occurs during childhood, it is associated with delayed development, inability to concentrate in school and thus, diminished academic performance, anxiety and depression, and early-onset obesity." 

Meanwhile, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the county's public health director, said the pandemic "exposed many of the existing flaws in our food system that prevent access to affordable, healthy, and nutritious food."

"While many Los Angeles County residents experienced food insecurity in the past year, low-income communities and communities of color continue to be disproportionately affected on an ongoing basis," Ferrer said. "We must embrace innovative programs and policies to ensure a more equitable, sustainable and effective food system."

The report recommends an array of such strategies to reverse the trends and improve food equity, including:

  • understanding and addressing the important relationship between food equity and racial equity
  • shifting the focus from "food security" to "nutrition security"
  • implementing new strategies to increase participation in nutrition assistance programs such as CalFresh and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
  • investing in food recovery systems throughout L.A. County to increase food resources and assure food equity for all
  • Leveraging data sharing across county social service programs to increase enrollment in CalFresh and WIC
  • supporting a social safety net program for undocumented people and/or those from mixed status households
  • Engaging the health care sector to expand food insecurity screening and linking patients to nutrition assistance