UCI study examines broad impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on food insecurity among rural, Latino immigrants in California

Food insecurity is a major public health issue that, under normal circumstances, has profound impacts on socially and geographically marginalized populations. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many nutrition-related health disparities that these communities have long faced, including rural Latino immigrant households, who have been disproportionately affected by this public health crisis.

A recent study led by Denise Diaz Payán, PhD, MPP, corresponding author and assistant professor of health, society, and behavior at the UCI Program in Public Health, examined how household food environments of rural Latino immigrants were impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how access to nutritional food is complicated by barriers to government assistance programs.

Findings are published online in the journal Nutrients.

“Latino immigrants in rural communities are uniquely vulnerable to food shortages, especially during crises like the pandemic,” Payán said. “Rural America has become an immigrant destination for many Latino immigrants who face a range of inequalities like lack of employment and reliable transportation, housing instability, limited access to key health and social services, and language barriers that increase their risk of food insecurity.”

Payán and colleagues from the UC Merced Department of Public Health, conducted a qualitative study in which thirty-one respondents from four rural counties in California completed interviews from July 2020 to April 2021, with 42 percent of respondents coming from low food security households.

“Early in the pandemic, food availability was greatly affected by school closures and more meals needing to be consumed at home. Reduced incomes and wage loss also had a significant impact during this time,” Payán explained.

Findings showed that key barriers to food access included higher food costs in small retailers due to supply chain disruptions, lack of transportation, and distance to grocery stores, which have been previously identified as impediments to food security in rural areas. The team also found that transportation was a barrier specifically for accessing school meals during the pandemic.

Results revealed several barriers to government nutrition assistance programs. Respondents expressed concern about legal status and stigma when asked about accessing programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and limited time and childrens’ food preferences as barriers to utilizing school meals when schools were closed. They encountered fewer barriers with the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) and charitable food programs.

As a workaround, respondents also turned to social networks for help. “In their interviews, many study respondents talked about the importance of social connections for support and resources, describing assistance from friends, family, and neighbors as crucial in offsetting many of these challenges,” Payán said.

“Our study underscores the need to adopt a nationwide universal free school meal program, provide greater incentives for informal transportation networks, use community pick-up locations, and expand public transit,” she continued. “Results can be used to inform the development of future policy and system interventions aimed at decreasing food insecurity and nutrition-related health disparities among vulnerable populations like rural Latino immigrants.”