FRONT PAGE: Food Pantry Clients Say Pandemic Increased Food Insecurity, Psychological Stress

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Newswise — A novel study by UT Southwestern researchers who conducted interviews as the nation shut down due to COVID-19 tells the stories of those who routinely faced hunger before the pandemic upended their lives. This research could help improve emergency response. It found that food pantry clients were more likely to experience increased economic hardship, increased food insecurity, and psychological distress.

The researchers queried members of 40 Dallas County households – 20 in English and 20 in Spanish – served by Crossroads Community Services, a networked organization of more than 140 food pantries that are part of the North Texas Food Bank (NTFB) system. The clients had received federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP) for at least six months. Crossroads’ main food pantry also provided monthly food assistance to supplement their SNAP benefits. Their median income was $1,235 per month with an average household size of four individuals.

“Texas is one of the most severely affected states during the pandemic, with more than 1 in 4 households (26.8%) estimated to be food insecure at some point since March 2020,” said senior author Sandi L. Pruitt, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Population and Data Sciences at UT Southwestern and co-leader of the study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition (Cambridge University Press).

” This study is the first to qualitatively examine the experiences of people who were food insecure before the pandemic. Fluent in Spanish and trained as a medical ananthropologist, Dr. Higashi is a specialist in qualitative methods for evaluating and optimizing health service delivery and studying health outcomes for underserved communities. Her current role as Principal Investigator is to assess the effectiveness of telehealth in the midst of the pandemic.

Other studies have evaluated the effects of the pandemic upon similar populations using quantitative methods, which use surveys and statistics to measure changes in food safety. She said that this study gathered narratives from people who described in their own words how the pandemic affected them and their feelings about it.

The study reported three main findings:

Participants experienced increased economic distress related to job loss and/or increased utility bills or other household expenses due to household members being at home more than usual.
Participants saw a rise in food needs, prices, and shortages.
Increased economic stress and food insecurity contributed to substantial psychological stress, adding to fears of infection, isolation, and stress related to children confined to home.

The 40 households represent a small slice of Crossroads’ clients who predominantly come from Dallas, Navarro, and Ellis counties. Study participants were drawn from a larger, ongoing randomized-controlled trial that is looking at whether the timing of food pantry visits could better reduce food insecurity. The results of this study are still being analyzed.

All interviews were conducted in May and June 2020, approximately two to three months after the pandemic began and lasted an average of 26 minutes. After the interviews were transcribed, they were de-identified and thematically analysed. We found that the economic disruption caused by the pandemic created new problems which exacerbated food insecurity. Dr. Pruitt explained that children who received breakfast and lunch at school had to go home. This meant that the family needed more food and was paying higher utility bills. She acknowledged that it may surprise some people to hear that SNAP or a monthly food pantry visit is not enough to feed a family for a whole month. She explained that neither program can provide food for all members of the household.

Coauthors are Anubha Soom, Ana Belen Conrado and Kathryn Shahan.

The study was funded in part by the W. W. Caruth, Jr. fund at Communities Foundation of Texas.

The researchers thank the clients and staff of Crossroads Community Services for their participation and assistance with this research. The Cambridge Coronavirus Collection will include the published manuscript.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 25 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 16 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,800 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 117,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 3 million outpatient visits a year.

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