Demand for food is expected to grow 60 percent by 2050. According to the chief economist at the World Food Program, as many as 135 million people worldwide are already facing severe food shortages, but COVID-19 is forecasted to double that number by the end of the year.

Though the spectre of world-wide food insecurity looms dangerously on the horizon, the scope and gravity of this problem is particularly acute in parts of the U.S. In the state of Washington, nearly 1 in 3 individuals could face some sort of food insecurity in the coming year with people of color affected disproportionately.

Despite years of economic progress, the pandemic is on track to precipitate a potentially devastating increase in the number of Washington state residents who lack reliable and consistent access to sources of affordable, nutritious food.

A recent study conducted by McKinsey & Company on behalf of Northwest Harvest suggests that the food insecure population will quadruple in Washington State as a result of the crisis.

Food insecurity is a condition in which households or individuals are either uncertain of having enough food or are unable to acquire enough food to meet their needs. Assuming that 80 percent of jobs currently at risk due to the pandemic are lost, and that the COVID-19 crisis peaks sometime in the fourth quarter of 2020, analysis suggests that an estimated 2.2 million people will experience food insecurity in Washington State. The cause? Either job losses or because the coronavirus pandemic has strained the distribution of vital assistance to food insecure individuals and families. This is nearly quadruple the number of people who faced food insecurity pre-pandemic or about 500,000 newly effected individuals.

Across the state, certain counties may be especially hard hit with potential increases in food insecurity likely to be concentrated in western Washington. The three largest counties in Washington—King, Pierce, and Snohomish— account for more than 50 percent of the total food-insecure population in the State. In total nine counties out of 39 account for approximately 80 percent of all food insecure households.

Current state and federal programs, however, are inadequately funded to meet these new needs. After taking into account both existing and new federal and state programs, there is still an approximately $115 million a month funding gap between needs and available resources—a staggering sum even in good economic times. 

Food insecurity is a complex global problem; it does not exist in isolation. Food-insecure households often experience a plethora of challenges, which vary greatly across countries, local districts and states, and socio-demographic groups. For example, preliminary research conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that racial and ethnic minorities suffer both a greater burden of disease and a greater risk of complications from COVID-19. Moreover, our research has shown that people of color more broadly hold a disproportionate number of at-risk-jobs that could be lost during the pandemic.  As a result, people of color are more likely to suffer from food insecurity in this turbulent time.

Clearly COVID-19 induced unemployment will be a critical driver of increased food insecurity. In addition, the closing of schools in many countries to prevent the spread of disease means that many low-income students are cut off from an important source of nutrition while social-distancing practices have impacted the distribution of food through food pantries.

Far from being a temporary problem, food insecurity can have lasting effects, both physically and psychologically.  For example, food-insecurity can contribute to anxiety and other mental health disorders years later. These effects are particularly acute among individuals who have experienced food insecurity as children. Solving this problem now, can therefore also help us improve critical health outcomes later.

Although addressing the underlying causes of food insecurity will require additional investment and collective action from both the public and the private sectors, the cost of inaction is also high. Food insecurity has many external costs from second-order effects, including lost productivity and healthcare costs which could have been avoided if food insecurity was not an issue.  These external costs alone have been estimated in the past to be more than $167 billion.

Many of the cities and regions that are worst affected have also experienced tremendous economic growth in recent decades, highlighting how important it is for leaders to confront and address the hard-social problems that exist.

Taking a hard look at the facts is the necessary first step in helping federal and local officials, and non-profits to work together to implement a comprehensive plan to attack hunger and food insecurity in our communities. Research alone, however, cannot solve the problem. It will take the coordinated efforts of business, non-profits, and government to address it.

About the authors: Dilip Wagle is a Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company helping high-tech and media companies develop strategies and the organizational capabilities to execute them.

Denise Cheung is an Associate Partner in the Operations Practice at McKinsey & Company in Seattle. She serves Consumer clients across a range of sub-sectors, with a deep focus on Food & Beverage across CPG, Retail, and QSR. Denise has expertise across the end-to-end product value chain – Product Development, Procurement, Manufacturing, and Supply Chain.

Editor’s Note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.

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