COVID-19 creates challenges to food security

Contact: Judi Bartfeld,

The COVID-19 public health emergency is creating an urgent food security challenge for households and communities in Wisconsin. Even before the pandemic, one in eleven households in the state were food insecure, meaning they didn’t have assured access to the food they needed due to limited resources. For poor and low-income households, the risk was already much higher. While it’s too soon to know how much worse the situation will get, there are reasons for concern – and for communities, the state, and the nation to continue taking action.

Food security in our community rests on four pillars:  financial security, robust federal food and nutrition programs, a strong emergency food network, and a vibrant food system. The COVID-19 emergency threatens household food security by disrupting this foundation.

Financial security

Food security depends on financial security, and COVID-19 has dealt a major blow to household income. When money runs short, households often have to choose between paying for food or paying for rent, utilities, and other essentials. Since the onset of the crisis, there have been record-breaking job losses in the state. Thirty percent of respondents in a Marquette Law School Poll reported that they or a family member had lost a job due to COVID-19. Over 200,000 new Unemployment Insurance claims have been filed in Wisconsin since March 15 – more than 20 time the number during the same time a year ago. And job loss often triggers loss of employer-provided health insurance, compounding the financial blow. Other workers are losing pay due to lack of sick leave or involuntary reductions in hours; still others risk losing their business; and many retirees and others who depend on investments are losing income due to stock market volatility.

Federally funded food and nutrition programs

Food security also depends on federally supported food and nutrition programs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, called FoodShare in Wisconsin), school meals programs, the WIC program, and senior meal programs are among the federally funded programs that help keep food on the table for Wisconsin households. These programs all help stabilize food security by providing routine, predictable access to food, even as income and expenses change. The COVID-19 emergency has increased the need for these programs, while in some cases disrupting their normal functioning.

This disruption is especially true for school meals. Almost half of public school students in Wisconsin were approved to get free or reduced price school meals even before the pandemic; over a quarter million children were eating at least one and often more free or reduced-price meals at school on a typical day. With the statewide school closures, districts have had to develop new delivery methods just as need is escalating. Senior meal programs have had to find new ways of getting food to people, since group meal sites are no longer safe. And FoodShare cannot be used to order food online, even as many people, particularly the most vulnerable, are seeking to avoid stores.

Emergency food networks

Food security depends, too, on food pantries and other charitable food programs. The COVID-19 crisis is creating urgent new needs for emergency food, while also creating unique challenges. COVID-19 is disrupting staffing at food pantries, because many pantry volunteers are senior citizens at high risk of getting sick themselves. It is disrupting delivery models, which often involve clients coming into pantries and selecting food in a high-contact environment. And, it is disrupting food sources, as supplies from food drives and retail donations are down. Demand, however, is higher than ever, with emergency providers reporting two-fold to four-fold increases in requests compared to several weeks ago.

Food systems

Food security depends, finally, on a vibrant food system – one that provides seamless access to affordable and healthy food through a diverse network of producers, distributors, and retail outlets. Here, too, there have been disruptions. Most visibly to consumers, households’ anticipatory buying in response to COVID-19 is making it harder for some grocers to keep their shelves shocked; and safer-at-home guidance has dramatically limited food purchasing opportunities at restaurants and other venues. Changes in where and how people can purchase and consume food are creating disruptions to businesses and workers across the supply chain. Strategies are needed to protect the safety and livelihoods of people across the food chain; to ensure the safety and steady flow of products; and to support alternative marketing strategies for independent restaurants, food cart vendors, and small diversified farms, all of whom have lost major sources of revenue in the wake of COVID-19.

Emerging efforts to strengthen food security

Strengthening food security in the face of the COVID-19 emergency will require shoring up all all four pillars – financial security, federal food and nutrition programs, the emergency food network, and the food system. Responses to these challenges are rapidly evolving. To shore up financial security, federal and state legislators are working to get cash to families through one-time checks as well as expanded access to Unemployment Insurance; temporary state moratoriums are limiting evictions, foreclosures, and utility cutoffs for at least the near term; and community-based and other mutual aid efforts are striving to get emergency help to households. School districts are developing new ways to get meals to children, such as drop-off sites and bus deliveries. Work requirements for FoodShare have been waived during the pandemic, and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has requested federal waivers that would enhance the flexibility of FoodShare in a variety of ways. Food pantries and food banks are working to strengthen their capacity, shore up their food supply, and implement no-contact delivery models with strategies such as pre-packed boxes and mobile pantries.

There is much left to be done, however. Newly enacted expansions to Unemployment Insurance have not been implemented in the state system yet, nor have one-time federal payments yet been issued, creating urgent financial stress for impacted workers. Sustained and creative approaches at the local, state and national level will be needed to help families find and maintain a secure financial footing; maximize the capacity of federal food and nutrition programs to support household food security in the face of severe economic disruption; ensure the emergency food network is able to provide a strong backstop to households at risk of hunger; and maintain the vitality of food systems and the financial security of their workers.


UW-Madison Division of Extension has a variety of resources to support families and communities in responding to COVID-19; many of these are relevant to strengthening household and community food security. Find resources at:

Learn  about managing finances in tough times:

To learn more about food security and economic wellbeing around Wisconsin, see the Wisconsin Food Security Project,


Contact for questions about:

COVID-19 impacts on food security, emergency food programs and FoodShare contact Judi Bartfeld, Meta Schroeder Beckner Outreach Professor in School of Human Ecology and Food Security Research and Policy Specialist, UW-Madison Division of Extension,

COVID-19 and family economic security contact Michael Collins, Director of UW-Madison Center for Financial Security and Financial Capability Specialist, UW-Madison Division of Extension,

COVID-19 and food systems, contact Lindsey Day Farnsworth, Community Food Systems Program Manager, UW-Madison Division of Extension,