UW News

July 30, 2021

Food insecurity remains high and need for assistance dramatically up in Washington

UW News

Food bank scene

Members of the Washington Air and Army National Guard are supporting food banks around the state during the COVID-19 pandemic response.Joseph Siemandel/U.S. National Guard

Washington residents continue to experience a dramatically higher level of food insecurity — from 10% before the COVID-19 pandemic to 27%, according to the latest University of Washington and Washington State University research on food insecurity and food assistance in the state.

The study team also found that need for food assistance has continued to rise. Before COVID-19, about 29% of respondents reported using food assistance. In wave 1 of the survey, food assistance use increased to 33% of respondents; by wave 2, food assistance use was reported by 42% of the sample.

Study updates:

Special Research Brief: Food Security and Barriers to Food Assistance Use in Washington State Households, 2020-2021

Key Findings: 1. Food security lowest in vulnerable communities. 2. Food assistance use was highest in households with children and among BIPOC respondents. 3. Food quality and delivery/pick-up times were among key reported barriers to food assistance.


UW researchers say those numbers mean some people in Washington are going hungry and many more are not getting a steady diet of healthy food or the kinds of food their families are used to making for themselves.

“Agencies are doing what they can, but these are exceptionally difficult times for marginalized and economically insecure families,” said Jennifer Otten, one of the leaders of the survey team, UW food systems director and associate professor of nutritional sciences in the UW School of Public Health. “The pandemic continues to worsen preexisting inequalities and lay bare shortcomings of our social and economic structure. While the current level of food insecurity is alarming to see, so was seeing more than 1 in 10 Washingtonians food insecure before the start of COVID-19.”

The latest survey results are the second wave in a series of surveys being conducted by UW and WSU. The first Washington State Food Security Survey (WAFOOD) ran from June 18 to July 31 in 2020, receiving 2,616 responses from 38 of 39 counties. The second survey ran from Dec. 4 to Jan. 31, receiving 3,511 responses from 38 of 39 counties.

A third wave of the WAFOOD survey is currently underway. The survey takes approximately 15 minutes to complete and asks questions about your health, food access and economic needs.

“This suggests that the economic impacts of the pandemic are continuing to compound and, similar to prior recessions, there is likely to be a delay in improved food security even after the economy stabilizes,” Otten said. “Our results are telling an important and still unfolding story of how our social safety nets, which were already struggling to meet need pre-COVID, are now faced with even greater need.”

You can read the full report of the survey here.

“The continuation of the WAFOOD survey series is essential to meeting immediate need as best as we can, as well as for advocating for equitable change that was obviously, perhaps now more than ever, needed. There continue to be disparities in food insecurity and need among families with children, low-income households and BIPOC households,” Otten said.

The UW team included School of Public Health faculty and staff Adam DrewnowskiJen OttenSarah CollierChelsea RoseAlan IsmachJames Buszkiewicz and Esther Nguyen, all affiliated with the UW Center for Public Health Nutrition. Washington State University was represented by Laura Lewis, director of the Food Systems Program, and Tacoma Community College was represented by Brinda Sivaramakrishnan, professor of health, business and profession services. This project has been supported by the UW Population Heath Initiative and School of Public Health, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and other private philanthropy.


For more information, contact Jennifer Otten at jotten@uw.edu.