Help Line Requests for Food Skyrocket as Pandemic Spreads | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
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Tracking Soaring Social Needs in the Wake of COVID-19

Public Health; Social Work; Faculty; Community Engagement

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 23 cities and states over the first 12 weeks 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.

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 [23] 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 diapers and toilet paper have increased up to 20-fold in some states.
  • Maryland had four requests from seniors for a home delivered meal last year between March 12-25; this year, they received 453 requests in the same time period.
  • States that have not enacted utility payment assistance have seen requests for help spike up 2-5 times higher. 
  • In Missouri, food requests are twice as high as normal, but declining; however, rent assistance claims continue to surge.

"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.)