Shutdowns Mean More Go Hungry Among Spanish-Speaking Latinx Households in Bay Area

Food Scarcity Linked to Higher Rates of COVID-19, UCSF Study Shows

By Suzanne Leigh

Young child with empty plate

The number of primary Spanish-speaking Latinx families in the San Francisco Bay Area who cannot afford to eat balanced meals and go to bed hungry has more than doubled since the pandemic, according to a new study by UC San Francisco.

Food insecurity is defined by the Life Sciences Research Office, an organization that provides scientific evaluation and advice for national policymakers, as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” In industrialized societies, food insecurity is associated with cardiometabolic disease, diabetes and poor diabetes control, depression and obesity. Among children, it is also associated with behavioral and emotional issues, and academic challenges.

In the study, which will be posted on the medRxiv preprint server on Oct. 14, 2020, researchers followed three urban cohorts of Latinx households, totaling 1,875 individuals in 375 families. They found that during the pandemic 29 percent and 34 percent of groups 1 and 2 of these three cohorts (175 families) were food secure, compared with 77 percent for group 1 a year ago and 79 percent for a sub-sample of group 2 six months before the pandemic.

For group 3, which comprised 200 Latinx families, 60 percent were food secure during the pandemic, a figure that reflected the higher percentage of primary English-speakers – 57 percent versus 4 percent and 9 percent for groups 1 and 2 – and higher level of education, factors that impacted their earning power, the authors acknowledged. In groups 1 and 2, 35 percent and 39 percent of all household adults were unemployed, compared with 24 percent for group 3.

Closures of Hotels, Food Services, Manufacturing Industries Implicated in Food Insecurity

“The Latinx population is among the most likely to be pushed into poverty as a result of pandemic-related unemployment,” said senior author Janet Wojcicki, PhD, of the UCSF Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. “We know that unemployment is closely related to food insecurity and that Latinx adults may have been the most impacted by shutdowns in the hotel industry, food services, health care and manufacturing.” Additionally, food insecurity safeguards, such as using food pantries and visiting friends and family for meals, may be off-limits during the pandemic, the authors noted.

Researchers assessed food security by telephone interviews using the U.S. Household Food Security Scale Module, which includes 18 questions about food consumption. Respondents were asked to deny, confirm or quantify statements about skipping meals or reducing portions due to money concerns, or being unable to afford balanced meals.

Food security among children in the three cohorts was found to be higher – 57 percent, 54 percent and 78 percent in groups 1, 2 and 3. Other researchers have explained that parents prioritize nutrition for children and that older adults with chronic health conditions are more likely to be at a higher risk for food insecurity.

Food Insecurity a Factor in COVID Infection

The researchers also found an association between COVID-19 and low levels of food security.

Among the 375 families followed, there was at least one COVID-positive family member in 18 households (the cumulative incidence of household infection in the three groups ranged from 3.5 percent to 7.2 percent). In group 2, only 13 percent of families were food secure; in group 3, the primarily English-speaking cohort, 43 percent were food secure.

“Food insecurity is associated with a number of risk factors for COVID-19 infection related to poverty,” said Wojcicki. “These include household crowding, and lack of access to adequate masking and hand-washing resources, but may also independently be related to COVID-19 infection when exposed, due to overall poor nutritional health.”

While the participants resided exclusively in the San Francisco Bay Area, the study findings may be reflective of Latinx households in wider areas. In the two years prior to the pandemic, the overall prevalence of food insecurity in California was ranked at 9.9 percent, but reached 15.6 percent among Hispanic residents nationwide, the authors stated.

“The Latinx population together with other racial minorities historically have worse outcomes during and after disasters, since they already face a range of economic, social and political barriers,” said Wojcicki. “For the current pandemic, Latinx residents who are undocumented may fare worse, since they are not eligible for stimulus checks.”

Co-Authors: First author is Milagro Escobar and co-authors are Andrea DeCastro Mendez and Maria Romero Encinas. All are from the UCSF Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition.

Funding: The study was supported Eric and Wendy Schmidt by recommendation of the Schmidt Futures program, through COVID Catalyst at the Center of Emerging and Neglected Diseases. Additional funding came from the NIH National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the Hellman Family Foundation, Allen Foundation, and Marc and Lynne Benioff.

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) is exclusively focused on the health sciences and is dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. It includes UCSF Health, which comprises three top-ranked hospitals, as well as affiliations throughout the Bay Area.