UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. (WTAJ) — According to research conducted at Penn State University, over 12% of Pennsylvania households were experiencing hunger at the end of 2020.

Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences said this is the highest rate since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. For their study, researchers examined data from the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey. This survey was administered randomly in three different phases in 2020, where participants answer questions on their employment status and food and housing security.

Stephan Goetz, a professor of agricultural and regional economics, said the synthesis suggests that while the state’s rate of food insufficiency tends to be lower than the nation’s as a whole, it is still a significant and growing problem.

“More than one in 10 households in Pennsylvania sometimes or often didn’t have enough food to eat last year, and food insufficiency status has grown worse for all but the wealthiest Pennsylvanians since the beginning of the pandemic,” Goetz said.

The university’s findings have been published online. Researchers found that on average, 7.4% of all households surveyed also received free food in the previous week over this data period. According to the study, free meals aimed at children were the most frequent source (37.7%) while food pantries and food banks came in second (31.9%).

The graph below compares the percentage of people in Pennsylvania who reported food insufficiency before and after the pandemic, broken down by household income.

Bar graph showing PA reported food insufficiency by income bracket before and during pandemic.
Figure 3. Share of households reporting insufficient food during and before the pandemic. Credit: PENN STATE

Penn State said their research also demonstrates that food insufficiency is closely linked to the state’s unemployment rate. The graph below shows initial claims of unemployment insurance in PA.

Line graph showing PA unemployment claims over several months in 2020.
Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance, PA. CREDIT: PENN STATE/ US DEPT. OF LABOR

“Our synthesis shows an increasingly dire food insecurity situation for many households in Pennsylvania and beyond,” Goetz said. “As the pandemic drags on, it is likely to become an even more serious problem as families deplete their savings and are forced to choose between paying for food or paying for other necessities.”