Surveying more than 10,000 people across the United States late last month, researchers found that nearly 4 in 10 had too little to eat or difficulty obtaining healthy foods.
Southern states have been especially hard hit, with nearly half in some states having "food insecurity," the survey shows.
"Food insecurity was high in America before the pandemic, and it has gotten even worse," said lead researcher Kevin Fitzpatrick, a sociology professor at the University of Arkansas. "The U.S. food system is in the middle of a crisis."
Food insecurity is both uncertainty about being able to buy food when you run out and having to cut back on the size of meals, or in the most severe cases, actually skipping a whole day's worth of food, explained Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
The issue affects poor minorities far more than the white middle-class, Fitzpatrick said.
And even before COVID-19-related shutdowns left scores of Americans without paychecks, organizations that feed the needy were under pressure. Many providers were already at their limits and unable to respond to the greater demand, Fitzpatrick said.
When he and his university colleagues conducted their survey the last week of March, 38% of U.S. respondents reported moderate to high levels of food insecurity.
The greatest need was in Alabama at 48%, followed by Arkansas (47%), Tennessee (45%) and Kentucky (44%). The lowest need was in Iowa, with 1 in 4 reporting food insecurity.
"America is food insecure and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated that problem at a number of levels," Fitzpatrick said.
It's not just that food pantries and feeding programs are having difficulty meeting increased demand. Restaurants and other feeding businesses are closed and unable pick up the slack, he pointed out.
Also, the supply chain is broken, and farmers who produce food cannot find enough workers to pick and ready the food for market, Fitzpatrick added.
"We need to get better at planning for these types of crises, while at the same time making sure that the same high-risk, high-need populations are not always the ones that suffer the brunt of food insecurity," Fitzpatrick said.
"With all the food that we have available in this country, we also need to develop a supply chain from farm to table that can ensure that farmers don't lose crops and thus income, and that families don't lose vital healthy foods that sustain them during these types of crises," he added.
Waxman said she expects the hunger problem to increase before it starts getting better.
"The last time we had a huge spike was in 2008, and it only started to come down gradually, and only came to the prerecession rate in 2018 -- so that was 10 years," she said.
According to Waxman, ways to fight food insecurity include increasing access to SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits, often called food stamps, and increasing the benefit itself.
Also, she said states need to fund food banks. "Some states may be doing that, but a lot of states just aren't going to have the money, which means it's heavily on the federal government to step in," Waxman said.
Right now, Waxman added, food banks are overwhelmed. "We're in a world of hurt," she said.