Experiences of increased food insecurity, economic and psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic among Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-enrolled food pantry clients

Public Health Nutr. 2022 Apr;25(4):1027-1037. doi: 10.1017/S1368980021004717. Epub 2021 Dec 6.


Objective: The COVID-19 pandemic initially doubled the rates of food insecurity across the USA and tripled rates among households with children. Despite the association among food insecurity, chronic disease and psychological distress, narratives depicting the experiences of already food insecure populations are notably underrepresented in the literature. The current study assessed the impact of COVID-19 on clients of a food pantry who were also enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Design: A qualitative study probing the effects of the pandemic on daily living, food needs, food buying and food insecurity. Interview transcripts were analysed using a combined deductive and inductive approach.

Setting: Interviews were conducted via telephone between May and June of 2020.

Participants: Equal numbers of English- and Spanish-speaking clients (n 40 total).

Results: Three main findings emerged: (1) the pandemic increased economic distress, such as from job loss or increased utility bills due to sustained home occupancy and (2) the pandemic increased food needs, food prices and food shortages. In combination with economic stressors, this led to greater food insecurity; (3) increased economic stress and food insecurity contributed to increased psychological stress, such as from fear of infection, isolation and children being confined at home.

Conclusions: Despite federal legislation and state and local programmes to alleviate food insecurity, COVID-19 exacerbated economic hardship, food insecurity and psychological distress among urban SNAP and food pantry clients. Additional research is needed to identify the most effective policies and programmes to ameliorate the short- and long-term health and economic inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.

Keywords: Coronavirus; Food bank; Food pantry; Health impact; Hunger; Qualitative.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Food Assistance*
  • Food Insecurity
  • Food Supply
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • Psychological Distress*