Study measures food insecurity in Washington families

A mother and child wear face masks while grocery shopping.

According to the first Washington State Food Security Survey, 30% of Washington households have experienced food insecurity since the implementation of the state’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order in March. Of those households, 59% had children living in the home.

“We wanted to understand how access to food and economic security for Washington residents has changed amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Laura Lewis, director of the Washington State University Food Systems Program.

A team was formed from professors and researchers at WSU, the University of Washington and Tacoma Community College. Calling themselves the WAFOOD Survey Team, they deployed the first ever statewide survey about food security in Washington.

When Washington implemented the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order in March, it sent ripple effects through the state’s food system in the form of supply shortages, food production bottlenecks and distribution challenges.

“The figure was staggering,” said Katie Rains, policy advisor to the director for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. The estimated average for food insecurity in Washington prior to the global pandemic was in the 10-15% range.

In April, the WAFOOD Survey Team estimated 1.6 million food insecure Washington residents. “Now, we think it’s up to 2.2 million people, approximately a third of our population,” Rains said.

The Washington State Food Security Survey was deployed from June to July of 2020, with over 2,200 residents in 38 counties responding.

Lewis said one of the major changes in food distribution amid the COVID-19 pandemic is that most food banks and pantries are now drive-through only.

“It used to be you could go in and shop and pick out your own food,” said Lewis. “Now, people are getting less diversity in their food products, and on average, less food.”

“We need to make sure that food banks and food pantries have enough resources to meet these needs,” said Rains. “We’re keeping an eye on the number of people coming to food banks and food pantries, especially first time clients.”

Lewis said another issue is many food banks have consolidated to one main site, rather than multiple locations, meaning people have to travel further for their food.

According to the survey, meals from food banks, pantries, summer school meals programs, and grocery vouchers increased, but recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program slightly decreased.

“We’ve also been working with SNAP-Ed, so that Extension educators can modify their food and nutrition programs based on the data,” she said.

Lewis said the WSDA can now utilize this data to help establish a baseline for pre-COVID food insecurity in Washington and forecast food insecurity into the future. “The WAFOOD Team and the network we have developed with food system partners across the state will be sustainable for years to come in terms of how we understand food security in Washington,” she said.

Media contact:

  • Laura Lewis, director, Washington State University Food Systems Program, 360-379-5610, 206-240-2069,

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