Help Line Requests for Food Skyrocket as Pandemic Spreads

Community Engagement; Faculty; Public Health; Social Work

Across the U.S., requests to 2-1-1 from Americans seeking help getting food and paying rent rose sharply and instantly in the days following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Brown School researcher who tracks calls to 2-1-1 help lines. Matthew Kreuter, the Kahn Family Professor of Public Health at Washington University in St. Louis, and his team are tracking requests for hundreds of needs, as captured by 2-1-1 help lines across the country. They have established a web presence, FOCUS-19, to report new findings daily.

The most recent analyses examined cities and states nationwide since the beginning of 2020. For each week, they charted the total number of requests to 2-1-1 for food pantries, home-delivered meals, and rent assistance. Many states saw 2-1-1 calls top 1 million by the last week of April.

An earlier analysis found that in the first week since COVID-19 was designated a pandemic, requests for food pantries skyrocketed across the United States. Requests for home-delivered meals more than tripled in the same time period.

“In all locations, requests for food pantries were much higher, often 2-4 times higher than the same week last year,” Kreuter said. “Requests for home-delivered meals were higher in all but one location.”

Kreuter is senior scientist at the Brown School’s Health Communication Research Laboratory, which developed 2-1-1 Counts, the first tool to provide real-time, searchable and visual presentations of data from 2-1-1 call centers across the country

Other insights revealed in the ongoing analyses by Kreuter and his team:

  • Requests for help with burial services, usually low, have skyrocketed in the states most affected by COVID-19, increasing 783% in New Jersey compared to this time last year.
  • One third of Americans calling 2-1-1 from low-poverty ZIP codes are requesting COVID-19 information about exposure, infection, disease or testing; , only 11% of 2-1-1 callers from high-poverty ZIP codes want COVID-19 information.
  • A growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks have been linked to meatpacking plants. This report examines calls to a 2-1-1 number in South Dakota after a reported outbreak in March. 
  • Analyses of seven states – including Missouri – show that people in high-poverty zip codes represent 10% of the population, but comprise 39% of food assistance requests during COVID-19.

“The size and suddenness of these increases is striking,” he said. “People need help feeding and supporting their families, and local agencies need help keeping pace with the higher demand.”

2-1-1 is a free and confidential service that helps people across North America find the local resources they need 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in most communities. Each year, 2-1-1s receive 16 million requests, not only seeking emergency services, but also basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing.

Data tracked by 2-1-1 Counts can be searched and displayed by date, county, congressional district and more.

Upcoming analyses will examine income, employment, transportation, health care and other social needs; mapping where the increases in local needs are greatest; and reporting calls specific to COVID-19.

This research is conducted in partnership with Health Communication Impact LLC, United Way and 2-1-1 help lines. The team’s recent work has been featured in news outlets across the country: 

(This article will be updated as new features emerge.)