News coverage of food insecurity during the pandemic may have helped reduce the stigma associated with government-funded food assistance programs; however, reporting was largely “color blind” and failed to discuss racial disparities in hunger, found a new study from researchers at the Public Health Institute’s Berkeley Media Studies Group, the University of Minnesota’s Division of Health Policy and Management, Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Wesleyan University.
“The news plays a big role in shaping how people understand social issues, like hunger, and what to do about them,” said Hina Mahmood, BMSG media researcher and the study’s lead author. “Elected officials and public health leaders alike need complete information so they can craft sound policy solutions — ones that address the needs of those who are most marginalized.”
The study, “Those Who Need It the Most”: Equity Framing in 2021 U.S. Print News About Food Assistance published August 10, 2023 in the journal Health Equity, adds to a body of research from these groups showing that news coverage about hunger amid COVID brought an empathetic lens to those in need of help. During 2021, U.S. print news highlighted the importance of expanding and sustaining food assistance programs for children and families. For example, journalists told stories about states offering waivers to provide free school lunches to children regardless of household income. They also examined changes to the design and delivery of anti-hunger programs efforts to make it easier for people to access food assistance.
“It was heartening to see broad support for food assistance programs that have long been stigmatized,” said BMSG Head of Research and study co-author Pamela Mejia. “However, this should be a starting point, not an end. As lawmakers allow anti-hunger programs to expire, more families — especially Black and Brown families — are being thrown back into crisis. It is critical to see news coverage reflect that and frame hunger in the context of equity and justice.”
Even before the pandemic, poverty and structural racism fueled disparities in access to healthy, affordable food, with some communities having fewer resources like full-service grocery stores and a lack of transit options. COVID-related illness and job loss exacerbated the situation:
During the pandemic, rates of food insecurity soared, especially among Black and Latinx families, who reported hunger at almost triple the rate of white families (roughly 40% compared to 15%).
Yet, news rarely elevated this inequity, focusing instead on overall food insecurity across populations. Specifically:
- Just 28% of articles argued that food assistance programs are justified because they help address inequities in food access; when arguments about equity did appear, they were most often in discussions of school lunch programs.
- Only 6% of articles mentioned people of color as recipients of food assistance programs.
- Even fewer (4%) specifically evoked addressing racial inequity as a rationale for improving anti-hunger programs.
Read the full article in the journal of Health Equity.
Heather Gehlert with PHI’s Berkeley Studies Media Group provides an analysis of how media coverage of food insecurity changed during the COVID pandemic and offers lessons learned on how the conversation around hunger can continue through an equity lens. Read her blog.
About Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG)
BMSG, a program of the Public Health Institute, was founded in 1993 and is dedicated to expanding the ability of public health professionals, journalists, and community groups to improve the systems and structures that determine health and safety. Our approach is grounded in three decades of examining — and working to shift — narratives around public health and social justice issues to achieve racial and health equity.
About the Public Health Institute (PHI)
The Public Health Institute and its programs improve health, equity, and wellness by discovering new research, strengthening key partnerships and programs, and advancing sound public health policies. Our hundreds of programs have impacted millions of people, creating an architecture that will continue to impact communities for generations to come.
Hina Mahmood, MPH
Researcher, Berkeley Media Studies Group
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Press & Outreach Specialist, Public Health Institute
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