The Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity (CAIRHE) sponsored a survey studying the impact of COVID-19 on the food security of Montanans. The project collected responses from 1,944 participants between April and Sept. 2020. “The survey was the first of its kind in Montana to report about the immediate impacts of COVID-19 on food security,” said Carmen Byker Shanks, associate professor of Food and Nutrition and Sustainable Food Systems at MSU and the lead of the project.

Shanks’ team included Michelle Grocke, assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Development and MSU Extension specialist, Justin Shanks, former faculty at the MSU Library, Elixa Webber, CAIRHE research project manager, and graduate research assistant Kimberly Scanlon.

The project revealed that food insecurity substantially increased from 11% before the pandemic to 18% during. Food insecurity is defined as not having consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle. “Food insecure individuals experienced greater economic hardship and were more likely to report a higher prevalence of underlying health conditions,” Shanks said. The trend found in Montana is also occurring across the United States.

The survey also recorded notable changes in positive and negative behavior. 54% of respondents reported positive behavior changes from the pandemic and 37% reported negative behavior changes. “Some individuals reported increased alcohol consumption while others reported wasting less food,” Shanks said.

Shanks proposed a series of strategies for bolstering food security. Some possible solutions include reorienting food systems to ensure adequate and equitable food supplies and support systems being put in place to encourage individuals to continue with new positive habits and change negative habits. On the local level, communities can work to reduce the stigma about needing help, address food insecurity through local organizations and help their neighbors.

To work toward reducing food insecurity, Shanks plans on “partnering with individuals, communities, researchers, students, organizations and policymakers to find context-specific strategies that provide nourishing food for all.” Her team is currently working with Montana No Kid Hungry and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to reach that goal.

Shanks hopes her survey will highlight an important problem that has worsened with COVID-19. “This moment in time highlights a food insecurity crisis that has existed for decades,” Shanks said. “We have a responsibility to press for more and continued policy support that will solve an inexcusable problem in society where enough food and resources are available, but we do not do justice in distributing them equally to everyone.”

For anyone experiencing food insecurity, Shanks advised, “Times are tough and you are doing your best. Reach out to people you trust that may be able to help and your local health department to learn about resources that are available to provide food immediately.” Services like Gallatin Valley Food Bank work to provide access to food for families and individuals in Bozeman that need it. Visit the food bank’s website athttps://gallatinvalleyfoodbank.org/. On-campus, the Bounty of the Bridgers food pantry is available to all MSU students, staff and faculty. The food pantry has altered operating hours in response to COVID-19, so be sure to check the website at http://www.montana.edu/oha/bounty-of-the-bridgers.html