Mother chaotically feeding her three children

A Shift in Hunger: U.S. Food Policy and What We Learned from the Pandemic

Food insecurity rates increased as pandemic-backed support came to a halt.

Changes in public assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic lifted thousands of Americans out of hunger. Households with children and those receiving food stamps were the main beneficiaries of increased tax credits, funding for social programs, and food assistance.

But in 2022, as such supports expired, food security—or sufficient food access for individuals or households—dropped significantly. Pandemic financial benefits ended, 17 states withdrew from receiving extra support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and food prices spiked across the country.

What does this mean for Americans in 2024? Food policy plays a significant role in minimizing hunger, and the Farm Bill—set to be renewed this year—is in the spotlight. Typically, most Farm Bill funds are allocated to nutritional assistance programs, the largest of which is SNAP. But there are growing concerns that SNAP funds are in jeopardy in the new bill.

In light of these developments, it’s helpful to revisit the facts around food security and SNAP, and what they mean for the well-being of low-income households and households with children. Based on pre- and post-pandemic data, here are three findings that elevate the importance of SNAP funding.

At the height of the pandemic, food security improved for SNAP households and those with children

Food security among SNAP households improved in 2020 and 2021 compared with 2019. Similarly, a smaller share of households with children faced food insecurity in 2021, meaning there were lower rates of children being hungry, skipping a meal, or not eating any food for a day.

Emergency financial assistance, particularly extensions to existing programs, played an important part in boosting food security. In most states, SNAP allotments increased and program access was streamlined from March 2020 through February 2023.

These infusions of funds worked, data show. Federal assistance programs lifted 45.4 million people out of poverty in 2021. And more children benefited: In 2021, 27% of U.S. children were in families receiving public assistance, up from 23% in 2019.

Additional emergency provisions during the pandemic also helped with food security. Most U.S. households receiving the child tax credit (CTC) in 2021 used it to cover food expenses. Thus, a range of federal assistance programs helped improve children’s food security at the height of the pandemic.

But in 2022, food insecurity rebounded, as financial assistance stopped and costs of living surged

Very low food security increased for households with children from 2021 (0.7%) to 2022 (1%), and many attribute the additional hardships to higher food prices and inflation. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a measure of inflation for all consumer goods, including food. Observing CPI data for all consumer items (gasoline, utilities, food, etc.) from 2013 to 2023, the highest month-over-month increase occurred in mid-2022, presenting a 1.2% change from May 2022 to June 2022 (Figure 1). Similarly, the CPI for food alone increased every month in the first half of 2022, jumping over 1% from both April to May and June to July.

Figure 1. Significant price increases hit consumers in the first half of 2022
One-month percentage change in Consumer Price Index for all consumer items and food, seasonally adjusted

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Price Index (CPI) Databases, “All items in U.S. city average, all urban consumers, seasonally adjusted” and “Food in U.S. city average, all urban consumers, seasonally adjusted.”


Food prices are known to be volatile and are often excluded in CPI calculations. However, significant volatility can cause economic disruption that harms consumers, especially vulnerable groups. While food prices have since leveled out, they remain high, creating long-lasting effects for low-income households. Families that depend on weekly wages, work minimum wage jobs, and have unsteady employment have a harder time recovering from increased costs of living.

In addition, during the high-inflation period in 2022, families no longer received the CTC, which was halted at the beginning of year. While the tax credit targeted all households with children, it benefited vulnerable families the most in recovering from the pandemic.

Racial and regional disparities in child hunger persist

Racial disparties persist in child well-being and hunger, data show. Most households that were lifted from poverty via the CTC were families of color. Pandemic survey data between July 2021 and February 2022 show that an average of 60% of Black households with children received CTC payments, the highest rate of all racial groups (Figure 2). Additional data from the KIDS COUNT Data Center show that the only racial group to experience a decline in poverty during this period was Black children. Perhaps surprisingly, the pandemic time period—buffered by extra financial assistance—was beneficial to many in poverty, especially Black children and their families.

Figure 2. 60% of Black households with children received CTC payments during the pandemic
Average percentage of households with children that received CTC payments, July 2021–February 2022

Note: Racial and ethnic groups represented in this figure are not mutually exclusive.

Source: KIDS COUNT Data Center, “Households with children that received a CTC payment in the past four weeks by race and ethnicity in the United States.”


Regional differences are also notable. According to 2019-2021 CPS data, in Southern states, significantly higher shares of children lived in food-insecure households than in other regions. On average, 15.9% of children in the South were in food insecure households, compared to 11.4% of children in the Northeast. In 2021, about 83% of the nation’s most food-insecure counties were in the South. These findings reveal that Black children in the South are doubly disadvantaged with respect to food security.

The policymaker’s role in reducing hunger

Prior to the pandemic, food security among households with children steadily decreased. And, the past four years have further demonstrated the significance of policy in combatting food insecurity (Figure 3). During the 2020-2022 period, covering both early and late stages of the pandemic, the rate of food insecure households with children was 16%—up slightly from 15% in 2019-2021.

Figure 3. Food insecurity for households with children has been on the decline—but it increased late in the pandemic
Percentage of households with children that were food insecure in the past year, 2011–2013 to 2020–2022

Source: KIDS COUNT Data Center, “Children living in households that were food insecure at some point during the year in the United States.”


Reacting to the economic uncertainty of the pandemic, policymakers administered emergency financial assistance that improved food security for vulnerable households, even during a historically difficult time. But in 2022, food insecurity in these households rebounded, as COVID-era supports expired, food prices rose, and costs of living soared.

In light of this evidence, policymakers recommend:

  1. Protecting funding for nutritional assistance programs and improving these programs to meet meal costs.1
  2. Expanding the CTC and the earned income tax credit for low-income households.2

SNAP benefits, even with increases in 2021, failed to meet meal costs in both urban and rural areas nationwide. Increased funding in nutritional programs—a possibility in the new Farm Bill—would help fill these gaps, providing households with appropriate allowances to meet food costs where they live.

Higher tax credits for low-income households and households with children directly increase household spending on food, data show. Expansion of such tax credits directly affects workers who earn poverty-level wages and those who identify as Black or Latino.

But, the real beneficiaries are children, for whom important outcomes—including school success and health—are linked to have reliable access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food at home. And evidence from the pandemic shows that minimizing hunger is achievable by strengthening existing programs.


  1. Urban Institute, “The Gap Between SNAP Benefits and Meal Costs, 2020–2021,” November 18, 2021.
  2. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Race for Results:  Building a Pathway to Opportunity for All Children, January 2024.