To the authors’ knowledge, this study of repeated cross-sectional surveys is the first in Australia to assess changes in the prevalence of food insecurity throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to determine the relationship with sociodemographic characteristics in a large sample of Australian adults. Our results indicate that the high levels of food insecurity documented at the beginning of the pandemic during a lockdown reduced but did not recover to pre-pandemic levels after 1 year, suggesting that a higher level of food insecurity may be the “new normal” in Tasmania, Australia. Our results are particularly concerning given that Tasmania is a state of Australia that was relatively unaffected by large-scale outbreaks of COVID-19 and avoided lengthy lockdowns relative to other regions of Australia and the world. As such, our results point to the potential for more substantial long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on food insecurity in Australia and globally, especially in regions with community transmission of COVID-19 and/or extended enforcement of public health restrictions.
There is a growing body of international research that shows that food insecurity has been exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and that the degree to which food security has been affected reflects both the extent of the spread of the virus and the severity of public health restrictions . In our study, the age-adjusted prevalence statistics indicate that more than a quarter of Tasmanians experienced some degree of food insecurity during the initial lockdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, strict social distancing restrictions  were coupled with challenges around food access and availability due to supply chain instability  and income reductions and job losses affecting financial access to food. Our previous research, which used the data from Survey 1 of this study, reported that these challenges disproportionately affected food insecure households , who were significantly more likely to be consuming less fresh food and have less food stored in their homes compared to food secure households. Despite the lack of community transmission of COVID-19 and easing of social distancing restrictions in Tasmania, the prevalence statistics only reduced slightly, to approximately 1 in 5 (or 20%) of households in September 2020 (Survey 2). This was several weeks after most restrictions were eased (Table 1), and the initial challenges related to food availability (e.g., panic buying) and physical access to food (e.g. shop closures) were largely resolved (Table 1). Additionally, while unemployment levels were still higher than prior to the pandemic , many individuals who had lost work, such as through the closure of non-essential retail and hospitality, had returned to work . For unemployed individuals, the COVID-19 disaster relief payments were generally substantially lower than average wages , and thus likely to represent a reduction in income for some households, which may have restricted their financial access to food. Interestingly, the prevalence of food insecurity rose to 23% in May 2021, which may be related to the withdrawal of the federally funded Coronavirus Supplement which was paid to recipients of unemployment and other welfare payments, and to the ending of the JobKeeper scheme . The withdrawal of these payments is likely to have further affected financial access to food for some households, as it has been documented that even prior to the pandemic people receiving government financial support payments struggled to afford food . As the number of people receiving government financial assistance in June 2021 was 7.4% higher than March 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic , it is likely that a large number of households, many of which were reliant on government assistance payments for the first time, had substantially reduced incomes 1 year after the initial lockdown.
Internationally, several studies have indicated similar trends in the prevalence of food insecurity during and after the initial lockdown. For example, in one study of families with dependent children conducted in the USA by Adams et al., (2021) , it was reported that the prevalence of food insecurity increased from 37% prior to the COVID-19 pandemic to 54% in May 2020, and then decreased to 45% by September 2020 without returning to pre-pandemic levels. A similar decline in food insecurity was reported in a study of adults in the USA using a validated two-item screening tool for household risk for food insecurity , with 54% of respondents classified at risk of food insecurity in April 2020, reducing to 41% by November 2020 . The predictors of food insecurity were low income and living with dependent children . The reduction in food insecurity several months after the onset of the pandemic globally could be related to the rebound of food supply chains which increased the availability of food, or to other social support responses implemented by governments and community groups such as emergency food relief. It is concerning that, even in Tasmania which did not have COVID-19 transmission in the community in the period of this study and was not been affected by extended lockdowns, the prevalence of food insecurity did not returned to pre-COVID-19 levels. Tasmania did, however, have higher levels of unemployment and underemployment due to its reliance on sectors such as tourism and hospitality, which were significantly impacted by strict border closures . Ongoing monitoring of food insecurity should remain a priority to determine how long it will take, and what specific interventions are required, for prevalence statistics to return to “normal”. This should also be a priority for regions that have had long-term implementation of public health restrictions or disproportionately high levels of community transmission of COVID-19 in other states.
In our study, gender was not significantly associated with food security status, which is likely to be related to the fact that the surveys measured household food security and survey respondents were predominantly in couple households. However, our analysis shows there was a disproportionate burden in food insecurity experienced by young Tasmanians aged 18–29 years. The proportion of young people receiving unemployment payments doubled between March (5.6%) and May (11.5%) 2020, which was a higher increase than seen in other age groups and likely related to the loss of casual and temporary work during the pandemic. Our study also showed that food insecurity was substantially increased in May 2021 compared to earlier time points for this age group, which could be related to the withdrawal of the Coronavirus Supplement associated with the JobSeeker payment of which younger Australians were the primary recipients, but this requires further investigation . There was a disproportionate economic disadvantage for young people during the pandemic because they were more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, and less likely to qualify for the JobKeeper scheme due to higher rates of casual work for this group [38, 39]. In our previous analysis, people receiving JobKeeper were not at higher risk of food insecurity compared to those with continuing employment, but people receiving the lower JobSeeker payment were at more than three times increased risk of food insecurity . In a large study in the UK using a 2-item food insecurity screening tool, 3.2% of respondents reported being unable to eat healthy and nutritious food in the last week in April 2020, which increased to 16.3% in July 2020 . They found that individuals who lost employment had an increased risk of food insecurity compared to individuals who were continuously employed or supported under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme , indicating that government financial support paid during the pandemic may have had a positive impact on food security . However, the increased prevalence of food insecurity found in our study in May 2021, after the JobSeeker payment reduced in value and the JobKeeper payment was abolished may indicate that lowering government support payments could increase food insecurity for its recipients, which warrants further investigation . In our study, temporary residents were at higher risk of food insecurity throughout the pandemic, which likely relates to the fact that they were excluded from receiving emergency COVID-19 government financial assistance .
In our study, lower levels of education were significantly associated with food insecurity at all time points. Education was also associated with food insecurity prior to the pandemic, however our results suggest it may have been exacerbated by this group having less access to the JobKeeper scheme, as they are more likely to be employed or be employed in casual jobs . In addition, couple families with dependent children and single person households were at significantly increased risk at Survey 1 in May 2020. This aligns with international literature, with one study in the USA reporting that 14.7% of participants reported having low or very low food security, with higher prevalence (17.5%) among households with children. Further, unemployment, low education and low income were independently associated with higher odds of food insecurity among households with children , demonstrating the importance of financial access to food. Interestingly, in our study, rurality was significantly associated with food insecurity at Surveys 1 and 2, but not 3, which may relate to the fact that challenges with food security in rural areas are compounded by lower availability and access to healthy food when the food supply is disrupted. These results align with recent review of food insecurity in rural regions of high income countries during the COVID-19 pandemic  that demonstrated that food insecurity was often significantly higher in rural regions, which was often related to lower food availability and access to food during the pandemic. Given the stability of the food supply had recovered by May 2021, this could indicate that temporary food supply challenges disproportionately affected rural-dwelling Australians, extending previously published research .
A strength of our study is that age-standardised prevalence statistics were used to more accurately indicate the extent of food insecurity across the population of Tasmania. Further, our study includes a unique assessment of how food insecurity evolved over the COVID-19 pandemic that can be used to understand the longer-term impact of the pandemic and associated public health restrictions. The limitations of the study include the use of repeated cross-sectional surveys which precludes causality inferences, and the use of convenience sampling methods which may result in a response bias and limit the generalizability of our findings. As our surveys were online and in English, this may have resulted in a sample bias towards higher-literacy respondents with internet access. Despite standardising our estimates of food insecurity by age, our sample was overall more highly educated than the wider Tasmanian community, which may result in an underestimation of food insecurity given that education is protective against food insecurity . The self-selecting nature of the sampling technique may have biased the results in ways that cannot be controlled for by the measured demographic variables. Our analyses are further limited by being unable to compare the prevalence of food insecurity by employment status or whether the participants received government financial support (such as JobSeeker and JobKeeper) throughout the pandemic, meaning we are unable to evaluate the importance of these factors for maintaining food security. Collecting this data should be a priority for future research, in addition to more comprehensive data on coping strategies and use of food relief programs. Lastly, we also lacked the ability to link survey respondents across time points, which limited our analysis as it is likely many of the same respondents answered all three surveys.