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Notes from the Field

Feeding Families During a Pandemic: Trends from a Northeast Ohio Food Bank

The views expressed in this report are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Food insecurity has always been an issue for many low-income households, and making meals stretch between paychecks can be a harsh reality. That reality was only made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, we take a closer look at how some Ohio families accessed food assistance during the past three years and how those trends may be changing.

The US Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” As in many other states across the nation, in March 2020, Ohio issued a public health emergency and ordered businesses and schools to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The decision rendered thousands suddenly unemployed, leaving many families without income to purchase food and other essentials. Feeding America estimated that food insecurity in Cuyahoga County reached more than 18 percent during the pandemic-related closures (in 2020). Though that number improved to 16 percent in 2021, almost 200,000 county residents were still food insecure.

Many people who are food insecure access food banks and their network of partners to help supplement their food budgets. To better understand food insecurity before and during the pandemic, we analyzed data from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank (GCFB), a 43-year-old institution that feeds hundreds of thousands of people across six Ohio counties: Ashland, Ashtabula, Cuyahoga (in which the city of Cleveland is located), Geauga, Lake, and Richland.

Supporting Families in Need

The GCFB works in Northeast Ohio mostly as a food distribution service, collecting food and delivering it to community partners. More than 140 community partners per week supply food to thousands of families through local food pantries, mobile pantries, senior markets, and food-as-medicine partners. To address the spike in demand for food assistance because of pandemic-related closures, the GCFB, with the help of the Ohio National Guard, organized a weekly drive-thru food distribution site at the Cleveland Municipal Parking Lot. GCFB’s overall food distribution is represented by the blue shaded area in Figure 1; there is a notable uptick in distribution in March 2020.

As the pandemic took hold in Ohio in March 2020, monthly visits to the GCFB and its partners increased. Visits dipped slightly after three federal stimulus checks were distributed (lines in Figure 1). The stimulus checks, combined with other assistance programs such as the child tax credit and additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, likely helped offset the decline in income many households experienced and may have helped mitigate the need for food assistance. As shown, visits to the GCFB and its partners reached a peak of more than 80,000 in August 2020 before trending downward throughout 2021. In recent months, however, food bank visits are again on the rise, likely because of increases in food prices as inflation hit a 40-year high.

Figure 1. Food Distribution by Organization Type, March 2019 to April 2022 (monthly)

Notes: This chart shows total visits to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and its partners. Families may be counted multiple times because they can visit the food bank and its partners multiple times each month. Sources: Greater Cleveland Food Bank, author's calculations

Pandemic Brought Many Families to the Food Bank for the First Time

Pandemic-related closures caused many families to experience food insecurity to the extent that they sought out and received help from the GCFB and its partners for the first time (first-time families). Figure 2 shows the trend of first-time families. On average, prior to the pandemic, the GCFB fed roughly 3,000 first-time families each month. This number doubled to an average of 6,000 each month from April to August 2020, during the peak of pandemic-related closures. In April 2020 alone, the GCFB fed almost 10,000 first-time families. Looking at the cumulative number of families who used the GCFB or partner for the first time during the pandemic shows a stark trend (Figure 3). In 2020, GCFB saw more first-time families (March to December) than in both 2019 and 2021 combined. GCFB saw more than 26,000 first-time families in 2020 than in 2019. It is interesting to note that there was a decrease of first-time families in 2021, but it is too early to see if that trend will continue throughout 2022.

Figure 2. Families New to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank (March 2019 to April 2022)
Figure 3. Cumulative Growth in Families Accessing the Greater Cleveland Food Bank for the First Time (March 2019 to December 2021)

To see if there were trends in family composition of first-time families, we compared characteristics of families who used the GCFB and its partners for the first time with families who previously visited the GCFB or a partner agency over three periods of the pandemic: prepandemic (March 2019 to February 2020), during pandemic-related closures (March 2020 to May 2020), and after pandemic-related closures were lifted (June 2020 to March 2021) (Table 1). First-time families who use the food bank showed different characteristics than those who had used the food bank before. The emergency food assistance network has always been a valuable resource for female head of households and seniors, but the pandemic shifted the demographic of those who accessed food assistance.

The largest difference between first-time families and those who had previously used GCFB or its partners is seen in those families with seniors. First-time families had fewer seniors; during some time periods, this difference was upwards of 10 percent. About 65 percent of families who had previously visited GCFB or its partners had a female head of household, compared to a slightly lower share of families who used the food bank for the first time during the pandemic. Examining trends in visits during pandemic-related closures (March 2020 to May 2020) shows that families with children and seniors who previously visited GCFB or its partners visited the food bank more times per month during closures than did first-time families.

Table 1. Demographics of First-Time and Previous Users of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank during the Pandemic
  Prepandemic (March 2019 to February 2020)
Pandemic Closures (March 2020 to May 2020)
Postpandemic Closures (June 2020 to April 2022)
Families with...  New Visitors Previous Visitors  New Visitors Previous Visitors New Visitors Previous Visitors
Children 32% 31% 34% 31% 29% 29%
Seniors 43% 54% 41% 55% 51% 60%
Female Head of Household 63% 65% 60% 65% 61% 66%

Sources: Greater Cleveland Food Bank, author's calculations

In addition to telling us who visited the GCFB or a partner agency and general family compositions, the data also allow us to see where families live. When examining only those families who live in Cuyahoga County, we find that a vast majority of first-time families live in Cleveland (81 percent), versus 85 percent for families that previously visited the food bank. However, it is also interesting to note the share of suburban families who are first-time and previous users (19 percent and 15 percent, respectively). The increase in suburban use of food bank services shows that a growing share of the people in need of food assistance reside in the suburbs; this is an indication that suburban poverty rates may be rising.

Continued Monitoring of Food Insecurity

This analysis shows that food insecurity was a significant issue for many Ohio families during the pandemic. Because of school and business closures, many northeast Ohioans found themselves in a new territory of being food insecure to the point of seeking assistance. As the pandemic moves into a different phase and much of the government assistance (that is, stimulus checks, childcare tax credit, and other stimulus programs) is sunsetting, demand for food assistance may change. This potential shift is especially true as additional food assistance benefits provided under SNAP must be continually reauthorized with the federal public health emergency declaration. After a decrease in the use of GCFB and its partners during the beginning of 2022, visits have been trending back up since March. Rising food, gas, and utility prices may help explain this increase. As we move into a new phase of the pandemic, the Community Development Department will continue to track trends in food assistance in northeast Ohio to better understand food insecurity in the region.