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UT study links COVID-19 and food insecurity in Travis County

The study was conducted by a partnership between Dell Medical School and CommUnityCare Health Centers.

AUSTIN, Texas — A recent study by the University of Texas has found a link between COVID-19 surges in the spring and summer and food insecurity in the Travis County area.

According to a press release from the university, one out of every five children and one in four adults in the county were food insecure before the pandemic struck, which means they suffered from a limited or uncertain supply of food.

In the study, the Department of Pediatrics at Dell Medical School partnered with CommUnity Care Health Centers to study 645 local families between April and August 2020 who sought care at two CommUnityCare clinics. Their research found that food insecurity affected these families 33% to 70% during this time, with an average of 47%. The fluctuations corresponded with the county's COVID-19 rates and hospitalizations, along with changes in the labor market. 

"In May, when steps were taken to reopen the Texas economy, food insecurity flexed downward, only to peak at 70% of families during July, when local COVID rates worsened,” said Megan Gray, an assistant professor in the departments of Pediatrics and Population Health at Dell Med.

“While these numbers of increased or decreased percentages of food insecurity give us a snapshot of what our community is facing, the reality of food insecurity goes beyond just having enough money to buy food. It’s about the chronic stress and mental health impact of families who are worried about not being able to meet their children’s needs,” she added. “And looking at these numbers, it’s very concerning that COVID-19 has erased decades of progress in food access and food equity, which will likely get worse this winter as COVID-19 rates rise in our community.”

RELATED: Central Texas Food Bank about 30% short of meeting demand, CEO tells CNN

Throughout the 20 weeks of the study, her team screened patients and their families for food insecurity. Most received assistance through Medicaid and were under the age of two years old, partly due to the fact that the clinics prioritized access for the youngest pediatric patients at the start of the pandemic.

The screening process contained two questions posed to parents about having enough money to buy food and worries of food running out. Researchers also asked questions about recent job loss in the family and their reliance on community resources.

Researchers said increases in food insecurity were most significant among Hispanic and Spanish-speaking families. Some of the factors these families cited included being out of work due to having the virus themselves or a need to quarantine.

Gray said she hopes this research will spark more discussions among providers and families as COVID-19 numbers continue to surge.

“Food insecurity is hiding in plain sight. We don’t know unless we ask,” said Gray.

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