Pandemic plunges families into food poverty in world’s rich economies

When the pandemic last year forced Mariassunta Seccia and her husband Rodolfo out of their jobs, they struggled to pay for food, rent and bills.

“It didn’t take long for all the money to run out,” said 36-year-old Seccia, who worked as a cleaner in a Milan hotel while her husband sold fruit at a market stall. “When our children opened the fridge and couldn’t even find a bottle of water . . . it was quite shocking for them, they had never experienced hunger in their lives before.”

The Seccia family are not the only ones from a developed wealthy country to have struggled. Across Europe and North America, the number of people to have gone hungry increased for the first time since the UN started collecting data in 2014, according to recently published figures. Nearly 9 per cent of people were moderately or severely food insecure in 2020, compared with 7.7 per cent the previous year.

The figures are dwarfed by the levels in less wealthy economies; nearly a third of the world’s population did not have access to adequate nutrition in 2020, according to the UN. And unlike poorer countries that lack government protection, most developed countries have state-backed welfare safety nets.

Despite this, many vulnerable people in rich countries have been hit hard by the economic impact of Covid-19, said Arif Husain, chief economist at the UN World Food Programme.

“Even in the developed countries there are people not necessarily in the safety net schemes. They have suffered and they are suffering,” he said.

These include self-employed workers or those on temporary contracts, who are often not covered by insurance-based unemployment and sickness benefit schemes, and those working in the informal economy.

In Italy, the number of people living in poverty jumped 22 per cent in 2020 from the year before to 5.6m, equivalent to one in 10 Italians, according to the National Institute of Statistics.

Mariassunta Seccia and her children faced hunger after she lost her job in the pandemic © Albero della Vita

To address that, the role of non-governmental groups such as charities and food banks has grown during the pandemic, said Lawrence Haddad, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. 

According to the European Food Banks Federation (Feba), its members helped almost 13m people in 2020, up 35 per cent from the previous year. About 860,000 tonnes of food was distributed, an increase of 12 per cent, and the numbers have failed to come down in 2021, said Angela Frigo, Feba secretary-general. “Food demand remains elevated,” she said.

Line chart of Moderate or severe food insecurity in North America and Europe (% of population) showing Hunger is growing even in rich countries

Seccia turned to a charity, the Albero della Vita foundation, which aims to combat poverty by offering food, care and education to those in need. “If it hadn’t been for the help of the [foundation], I don’t know where we would have ended up,” she said.

Isabella Catapano, general director of Albero della Vita, said the number of families the charity helped quadrupled year on year in 2020 to just over 1,000.

“Sometimes one has the impression that poverty does not exist in more developed countries, but it is right there,” she said. “During the pandemic, the situation in many cases deteriorated all of a sudden, with many people left without anything.”

In particular, people who worked in Italy’s informal economy were “most fragile” she said, being “left out of the safety net of the state”.

Column chart of People in absolute poverty (millions) showing The pandemic pushed up poverty in Italy sharply

In the US, food banks were serving 55 per cent more people than before the pandemic, according to Feeding America, which runs a nationwide network of food banks. It said 45m people experienced food insecurity last year.

While the number was lower than after the financial crisis in 2008, when food insecurity affected 50m people, food price inflation was becoming more of a concern, said Craig Gundersen, professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois.

“I’m more concerned what happens after Covid than during Covid. All these stimulus packages lead to inflation that’s going to lead to higher food prices. Whenever inflation goes up, there is a huge burden on vulnerable households,” he said.

Church members pack bags for a food bank in New York. About 45m people in the US experienced food insecurity last year, according to Feeding America © Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Food Bank For New York

The price of food commodities traded on international markets has soared recently, driven by droughts in key exporting areas as well as stockpiling by some governments and companies.

Developing nations, which rely on agricultural imports and food that is less processed, have been acutely impacted, but rich countries would also soon feel the effects, according to economists.

Food producer prices have risen at the fastest pace since 2008 and this would play a stronger role in driving headline inflation statistics than in the recent past, said Christian Bogmans, economist at the IMF. 

He and his colleagues expected consumer food prices in rich countries to rise on average by 4.5 percentage points by the end of 2022. The EU and US could face additional price pressures due to loose monetary and fiscal policies, he warned.

Line chart of Food price index (2014-2016=100) showing World food prices have soared

The dry weather conditions in parts of the US this year could increase consumer food price inflation further, although that was hard to quantify at this point, he added.

Aid experts were worried that elevated levels of poverty and hunger in rich countries would affect their ability to extend aid to poorer ones.

Husain at the UN World Food Programme was concerned that the world’s collective ability to respond to hunger and poverty was shrinking. “The needs are going up but rich countries have less resources to address those needs,” he said.

Back in Milan, Seccia and her husband have picked up odd jobs, mainly cleaning, for the past six months.

They hoped their situation would “slowly improve”, but the impact of the pandemic would linger, Seccia said: “We will spend the next few months, if not years, paying off the debts we accumulated.”