More Americans are hungry and it costs more to feed them

The first time Kelly Wilcox drove her 2017 Dodge Grand Caravan to the pantry near her home in Payson, Utah, she immediately noticed one thing that surprised her: the new models of sedans and Toyota and Honda minivans. “I saw a bunch of other people with cars like mine, who had kids in cars,” she said.

The mother of four young sons didn’t know what to expect when she made that first trip to Tabitha’s Way Local Food Pantry this spring. She knew she needed help. Her husband had lost his job. He soon found a new job as an account manager, but with inflation, that wasn’t enough. “We still can’t pay the bills,” said Ms Wilcox, 35. To feed her children this summer, she made regular trips to the pantry and said that unless there was a change, such as food prices falling or going up for her. husband, it will be needed for the foreseeable future.

Tabitha’s Way location in Spanish Fork, Utah, a town of about 44,000 people outside of Provo, served about 130 families each week, providing essentials like fresh produce and baby formula. This year – serving people like Ms Wilcox and her family, whose paychecks don’t go far enough – that number has topped 200.

Rising food insecurity is not a sudden wave of unemployment like it was when the economy came to a halt in 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic. It’s about inflation – higher prices for housing, gas and especially food. According to the latest consumer price report, the cost of food rose 10.4% from a year earlier, the biggest 12-month increase since 1981.

Food banks are trying to meet these needs while dealing with dwindling donations and, in some cases, increased awareness among people who need help that food banks are an option.

Census Bureau data showed that 25 million adults last month had sometimes not had enough to eat in the previous seven days. It was the highest number since just before Christmas in 2020, when the pandemic continued to wreak economic havoc and the unemployment rate was nearly double what it is today.

A survey by the Urban Institute found that food insecurity, after falling sharply in 2021, reached about the same level in June and July as in March and April 2020: around one in five adults said have experienced food insecurity for the past 30 years. days. Among employed adults, 17.3% reported experiencing food insecurity, up from 16.3% in 2020. (The most recent survey had 9,494 respondents and a margin of error of 1.2 points percentage.)

Locally, these trends are reflected in what Wendy Osborne, director of Tabitha’s Way, sees in Utah. “There are more people who have jobs, they work, they just don’t earn enough,” she said.

Ms Osborne said the majority of families picking up food at Tabitha’s Way were employed with one or more jobs. “I hear many times, ‘I’ve never had to use a pantry. I’m the one who helped people, not the one who needed help,” she said.

Lines of thousands of cars outside food banks and pantries were among the iconic images of the first phase of the pandemic, when the economy shrank after nationwide shutdowns. The federal government helped with additional funds and additional food. Individual donors donated money.

“There was a great charitable response at the start. There has also been a very vigorous government response,” said Elaine Waxman, an expert in food insecurity and federal nutrition programs at the Urban Institute in Washington. But the end of rising unemployment, stimulus checks and monthly child tax credit payments, combined with inflation, means the problems are starting to crop up again. This time, donations are down as needs are growing again.

“We are good in times of crisis. We rise to the occasion,” Ms. Waxman said. “But we don’t know what to do if the crisis persists.”

Feeding America, the nation’s largest food bank network that helps stock small frontline pantries where customers pick up food, said 65% of member organizations surveyed reported an increase. from May to June of the number of people served. Only 5% reported a decline.

At the same time, cash donations, a great help at the start of the pandemic, are on the decline. In the first quarter of the year, national office revenue fell nearly a third from a year earlier, from $151 million to $107 million.

“You’re in the middle of a battle and people are leaving the field,” Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive of Feeding America, said in an interview. During food bank visits, she said, “I walk into freezers that don’t have a lot of food in them. »

Feeding America’s network includes 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries and meal programs. In the four months for which the data is most recent, from February to May, 73% of Feeding America food banks surveyed said food donations were down, with 94% saying the cost of food purchases had increased and 89% saying they paid more for transport to acquire or deliver food.

In the first three quarters of fiscal 2022, Feeding America said, it received 1.14 billion pounds of food from federal commodity programs, up from 2.46 billion pounds a year earlier.

The multiple pressures on emergency food systems are evident at Tabitha’s Way. In the first half of 2022, food drive donations fell by nearly two-thirds compared to the same period last year. Food donations from grocery stores and restaurants were less than a quarter of what they were the previous year. Cash donations fell to less than $700,000 from nearly $1.1 million.

Like consumers, the pantry spends more on the food it buys. Fuel to pick up donated food costs more, although it’s down slightly from recent highs. And with a 2% unemployment rate in Utah, labor costs for drivers and skilled personnel have also increased. Ms Osborne said the average salary for her staff was $20 or more an hour, up from $16 a year ago. “We also don’t want our employees to suffer from food insecurity,” she said.

“There’s been a lot of national attention during Covid, rightly so, but unfortunately things haven’t changed and unfortunately tend to get worse at the moment, especially with all the inflation,” he said. said Ms. Osborne.

Those long lines at food banks at the start of the pandemic, and the cataclysm for everyone all at once, may also have done something to get rid of some of the lingering stigma around food systems. emergency.

“I thought it would be a whole bunch of off-brand convenience foods or meals,” said Antazha Boysaw, 24, a certified nursing assistant at a Hartford, Connecticut-area nursing home. Instead, the mother of two young children found her local pantries offering squash, shrimp and brown rice.

“You can eat fancy meals in the pantry,” Ms Boysaw said. “It’s not like you’re going to get the bare minimum of leftover, expired stuff.”

She started going to a food pantry in 2021 after learning her income was too high to qualify for SNAP benefits, sometimes called food stamps, but she still needed help feeding her children.

“I had my hat on, a big sweater – I didn’t want anyone to see me,” she said of the first time she walked into a pantry.

Now, as inflation continues to drive up prices, she has come to rely on food aid for healthy meals – and also encourages others in need to seek help.

Ms Boysaw began posting TikTok videos about her positive experience. She said to a friend, “Don’t be afraid, my daughter — go get your food!” Make sure you go with your ID.

Other people frequenting the pantry for the first time have made it through the peak of pandemic shutdowns without needing this kind of assistance, but are finding inflation more difficult to manage. Iliana Lebron-Cruz, 44, a health coach who also works for a canine retreat, lives an hour west of Seattle with her Costco supervisor husband and their three children. They have a combined family income of about $120,000. “We pretty much live paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

Recently, Ms. Lebron-Cruz found herself searching for free food options in her area after unexpectedly spending hundreds of dollars traveling to Oregon after a family emergency.

When she got home from that trip, she looked at her empty fridge. “I am paid on Thursday. It’s Tuesday. I haven’t,” she said as she realized. She called a pantry.

“If something pops up with the way inflation is, it’s kind of like a double whammy,” she said. “Six months ago, if the same thing had happened, it wouldn’t have been so bad,” she said.

As Ms. Lebron-Cruz said on a TikTok video that has been viewed over 390,000 times: “Break the stigma – no need to be embarrassed friends!!!!!” She said she received negative responses to the video, but also heard from mums in need.

“I’m like, absolutely, go feed your babies,” she said.

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