New Study from Urban Institute Shows Charitable Food Use Increased Nearly 50 Percent from 2019 to 2020

March 18, 2021

As the nation marks one year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession, a new brief from the Urban Institute examines the change in charitable food use, including the use of free groceries or meals, from December 2019 to December 2020.

One key finding is that nearly 1 in 5 adults (19.7 percent) reported using charitable food in the past year as of December 2020, an increase of almost 50 percent from the 13.2 percent who reported this in December 2019. This translates to about 13.1 million adults who newly reported accessing charitable food in 2020 when compared to 2019.

“Food banks across the country have reported staggering increases in demand during the pandemic, and the data from this survey confirms that trend,” said Tom Summerfelt, PhD, vice president of research at Feeding America.

Additional findings from the analysis by Urban Institute researchers, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:

  • Use of charitable food increased across all racial and ethnic groups, particularly among Hispanic/Latinx adults (89.2 percent) and for non-Hispanic/Latinx adults who are not Black or white, such as Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, and any other race or more than one race (87.4 percent). Rates of increase were similar for white adults (28.9 percent) and Black adults (29.4 percent) – but there were large disparities in charitable food use between white and Black adults before the pandemic.
  • Adults who identify as Black or Hispanic/Latinx were almost three times more likely than white adults to report accessing charitable food during 2020 (33, 33.3, and 12.5 percent, respectively), likely reflecting both higher rates of need before the pandemic and the recession’s significant impact on households of color.
  • Almost one in four adults (23.6 percent) living with children accessed charitable food in 2020 compared with about one in six adults (16.5 percent) in households without children.
  • Adults with a disability or who live with a household member with a disability (38.8 percent) are more likely to seek charitable food assistance than adults with no disability in the household (16.3 percent): nearly 4 in 10 did so in 2020.
  • Adults who are noncitizens or who live with any noncitizen relatives (34.2 percent) were more likely to seek charitable food assistance in 2020 than adults living in households where all family members were citizens (18 percent).
  • Among adults who reported not using charitable food in 2020, about half (49.3 percent) knew of a community resource for charitable food, and a little more than half (52.9 percent) reported they were not at all or not too comfortable seeking charitable food assistance if they had a need.

The growth in charitable food use may be related to several factors, including the loss of jobs and job-related income among many households, the closure of schools and day care settings and the ensuing loss of children’s regular access to those meals, supply-chain disruptions that contributed to food shortages and rising food prices, an increased supply of charitable food provided in response to the pandemic, and a heightened awareness of available resources because of the shift to large, community-wide food distributions.

“Food banks across the country have reported staggering increases in demand during the pandemic, and the data from this survey confirms that trend,” said Tom Summerfelt, PhD, vice president of research at Feeding America.

“This data shows charitable food use increased across all racial and ethnic groups in 2020 – but there were large increases among Hispanic/Latinx adults and among adults reporting other identities, such as Asian, Native American and more than one race, among others,” said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

The brief analyzes data from the Urban Institute’s December 2020 Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey, a nationally representative survey of 7,737 adults ages 18 to 64. The full analysis can be found here.

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Feeding America® is the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States. Through a network of more than 200 food banks, 21 statewide food bank associations, and over 60,000 partner agencies, food pantries and meal programs, we helped provide 6.6 billion meals to tens of millions of people in need last year. Feeding America also supports programs that prevent food waste and improve food security among the people we serve; brings attention to the social and systemic barriers that contribute to food insecurity in our nation; and advocates for legislation that protects people from going hungry. Visit, find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.