As the coronavirus rapidly spreads in New York City and State, it is influencing every aspect of people’s lives, including their ability to get food. To track the changing impact of the pandemic on the lives of New Yorkers, researchers from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy (CUNY SPH) and Emerson College are rolling out a weekly survey to capture where New Yorkers get information on COVID-19, how they perceive their personal risk, and what actions they are taking to protect themselves. Results from the March 13-15th survey are here and the March 20-22nd survey are here. The surveys paint a picture of an epidemic that has already has a devastating impact on the daily lives of New Yorkers.

This report summarizes reports from the March 20th telephone survey of a representative sample of 1,000 households in New York City and State on how the COVID-19 virus has changed their ability to get food. The questions asked respondents to indicate to what extent they believed that the coronavirus, and government policies to limit its reach, have reduced their household’s ability to get the food they need. Five options were presented: the virus has reduced their ability to get the food they needed a lot, somewhat, only a little, not at all or it had made it easier to get the food they needed. The survey does not distinguish between food obtained from grocery stores or restaurants, two key sources of food, both affected by the epidemic.

Figure 1 shows the overall responses. Half of New Yorkers reported that their ability to get the food they needed had been reduced a lot (18%) or somewhat (32%), showing the rapid change in food availability in the first weeks of the epidemic.

Figure 2 shows the breakdown in reports of food availability by household income. Of note, about 4 in 5 households at all income levels reported some reduced availability to the food they need since the epidemic started. In addition, more than one in 10 households in all income groups reported that their ability to get the food they needed had been reduced a lot, with lower income households reporting higher levels of disruption.

Food availability also varies by race/ethnicity, as shown in Figure 3. LatinX, Asian, Black and multi-racial and other households report higher levels of significant reductions in food availability compared to white households. LatinX and multi-racial and other households are almost twice as likely to report that their food availability was reduced a lot than white households.

Finally, differences in changes in food availability by region were examined. Figure 4 shows higher levels of reductions in food availability in New York City and on Long Island than in upstate areas. It is worth noting, however, that about half the residents in all three regions report a lot or some reductions in food availability, showing the extent of the problem throughout the state.

These findings show that many New Yorkers report that they are already experiencing difficulties finding the food they need as a result of the corona virus epidemic. It also shows that low income, LatinX and multiracial households are experiencing especially high levels of limited access. While the survey does not distinguish between actual food supply in stores and restaurants and what people perceive, the findings highlight the urgency of developing city and statewide solutions that will increase food access and availability. Future surveys will explore additional dimensions of the changing availability of food in New York City and State.

By Nicholas Freudenberg, Director, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute