Survey Finds 40 Percent of Puerto Rican Families Reporting Food Insecurity Due to COVID-19

September 22, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sept. 23, 2020) — The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted food distribution chains and triggered record high levels of unemployment in the United States and around the world. At the same time, media reports suggest that the pandemic may be taking a toll on food access in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that has been struggling with a long-term economic decline and the damage left over from Hurricane Maria.

To find out how COVID-19 has affected food security on the archipelago in the first few months of the pandemic, Uriyoán Colón-Ramos, ScD, MPA, an associate professor of global health at the George Washington University (GW) Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH), teamed up with colleagues at the Instituto Nueva Escuela to conduct an online food and nutrition survey. Nearly 1,400 households in Puerto Rico participated in the survey, which the researchers sent out in June through social media, non-profit organizations, schools and community partners.

Although the survey was not representative of the population in Puerto Rico, the researchers found a number of troubling trends in unemployment, food access and nutritional deficits that could have long-term implications for participating families--and especially children--living in Puerto Rico.

Early findings from the survey indicate that:

  • Sixty-two percent of people participating in the survey said they had used a nutritional assistance program to help them buy food in June, an increase of about 18 percent pre-pandemic.
  • Nearly 60 percent of participants reported a reduction in their income as a result of the pandemic.
  • Sixty-four percent accumulated more food because of COVID-19 and nearly 60 percent said they consumed more food because the pandemic had triggered fear or anxiety about the future.
  • Forty percent of those surveyed experienced food insecurity during the pandemic--up from 38 percent before the pandemic.
  • Before the pandemic, only 14 percent of participants said an adult in the family had to skip meals due to a lack of money, a percentage that increased to 20 percent during the pandemic.
  • Of the adults skipping meals to make sure their family had enough to eat, 66 percent said they skipped meals between one and two days a week.

 “We found forty percent of those surveyed had experienced food insecurity, including hunger, during the first few months of the pandemic,” Colón-Ramos said. “Those participants said their food supply ran out sometimes or frequently and they did not have the money to buy more food.”

The government of Puerto Rico delayed food distribution in school cafeterias in Puerto Rico until May 5, 2020, a decision that led to controversy. The survey ran from June 9 to June 30, 2020; only 27 percent of participants reported that they were using school food services during that time.

“Of the 78 percent of participants that did not use this service, we found the main reason for staying away from take-out school meals was a fear of getting COVID-19,” said Carla Rosas, an evaluation officer at the Instituto Nueva Escuela, a non-profit organization based in San Juan that co-designed and disseminated the survey.

In Puerto Rico, the majority of children rely on school meals, typically getting breakfast and lunch at school, Colón-Ramos said. If school food programs are not being used, the researchers are concerned that school-aged children will not get enough food to grow and develop properly.

 “In Puerto Rico, there has been a lot of misperception about what poverty looks like and whether there is food insecurity on the island,” said Cesar Ostolaza at the Instituto Nueva Escuela. “We know that poverty and food insecurity have gotten worse after other disasters and our survey shows that both are on the rise now due to the pandemic.” 

Having data from the survey can help experts better understand this problem and begin to design programs and policies to address food insecurity in Puerto Rico.

“It is impossible to speak about school and a good education without addressing the issue of nutrition,” said Ana Maria Garcia Blanco, the executive director of Instituto Nueva Escuela. “Our school breakfast and lunch programs have to integrate the best nutrition practices, design ways of being accessible to all under any circumstances and share with its personnel safe and healthy methodologies. This research is the first step in the transformation of our public school food service program.”

Watch a video on the survey and its findings produced by the GW Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute here.