By Christopher Walljasper
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Grace Melt made her first visit to the Nourishing Hope pantry on Chicago’s North Side in August. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, she used federally issued food stamps to buy groceries while she was out of work with a knee injury.
But this summer, food stamps couldn’t keep up with rising grocery prices, sending her on the hunt for a food donation for the first time.
“It’s definitely not enough. It never lasts until the end of the month,” she said of the benefits of food stamps. “And now they’ve raised the prices… So now you have to come here to a pantry, to stock up.”
Growing hunger is an issue for US President Joe Biden as he prepares to host the first White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health in more than 50 years and pledges to end hunger in United States by 2030. Voters could punish his Democratic Party for inflation in November’s midterm elections In a year, the economy has been the top concern for voters, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.
The Biden administration increased funding for food stamps nearly a year ago, but at the same time bought about half of the food the Trump administration did in 2020, for food banks, schools and Native reservations, according to data obtained from a US Agriculture Department Source (USDA).
Escalating food prices are eroding the reach of food stamps, which average about $231 per person per month in 2022, USDA data shows, sending more people to food banks, who in turn receive less food from the government.
The consumer price index (CPI) for food at home jumped 13.5% year-over-year in August, the biggest 12-month increase since 1979, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Food prices have risen to record highs globally since Russia’s invasion of the main grain producer, Ukraine.
Hunger rates this summer have also reached levels not seen since the start of the pandemic, when lockdowns threw supply chains into chaos.
“This is a problem that started to get better in 2021 and then quickly got worse,” said Vince Hall, director of government relations for Feeding America, the nation’s largest food bank network. “Most food banks in America are seeing lineups grow with each passing week.”
Some supporters have argued for spending more on food stamps or cash handouts, which gives people more choice than food handouts and also benefits local businesses. A Trump administration food box program was criticized as ineffective and ended by the Biden administration, which also put money in families’ pockets through expanded child tax credit payments. children until they expire last December.
Food insufficiency for families with children jumped to 16.21% as of July 11, when nearly one in six families said they did not have enough to eat sometimes or often, according to the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. , the highest since December 2020. Child hunger had fallen to a pandemic low of 9.49% in August 2021, in part due to child tax credit payments, according to the US Census Bureau.
‘WE JUST DO’
Hunger eased in 2021 after the Trump and Biden administrations handed out pandemic benefit payments to families to buy groceries, delivered billions of pounds of emergency food boxes and sent monthly payments of child tax credit. [L1N2QG1LZ]
But as pandemic restrictions have eased, the appetite for Congress and some states to fund hunger prevention efforts has also grown.
In fiscal year 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $8.38 billion on nearly 4.29 billion pounds of food for pantries, schools, and Indigenous reservations. But spending on food has steadily fallen nearly 42% from 2020 to 2022, to $3.49 billion, the lowest since 2018. The agency bought just 2.43 billion pounds of food the last year, according to data acquired by Reuters.
The USDA has worked to offset the drop in outright food purchases with additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps, adding nearly $31 billion from 2020 to 2022 But that extra help has been limited by higher food costs, states letting pandemic emergency declarations expire, and strict criteria determining who qualifies.
James Carvelli, who works in construction, said the Nourishing Hope pantry feeds him when work slows down. He doesn’t qualify for food stamps and has noticed that the pantry is running out of some items.
“We just go with it – They got what they got, and I appreciate that,” he said.
The USDA recently announced it would buy an additional $943 million worth of food through 2024, using Commodity Credit Corporation funds normally reserved for loans and payments to American farmers to compensate for disasters or low prices. basic products. The additional funds still leave the USDA on track to spend less on food in coming years than in 2020 and 2021, despite the continued need.
Asked to comment, the Department of Agriculture pointed to a drastic reduction in pandemic funding authorized by Congress that has limited the agency’s purchasing power for food banks and schools, many of which have canceled programs. of summer meals.
Hall of Feeding America lamented the removal of some additional food aid measures from the $430 billion Cut Inflation Act signed into law in August, including investing in child nutrition and a program Permanent Summer EBT, a benefit designed to fill the void when school meals are unavailable.
“There were things in previous versions of this bill…that were extraordinarily important priorities for fighting hunger, which were unfortunately not in the final version,” he said.
This year, the USDA is on track to purchase just over half of the food it purchased at the height of the pandemic, while donations from grocery stores and food distributors have dwindled as businesses tighten supply chains and minimize waste.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository, one of the nation’s largest distributors of food to local food pantries, expects this year to receive just over a third of the food it received from the USDA in during the 2021 financial year (July 2020 to June 2021).
As food supplies dwindle, inflation is for the first time pushing more Americans into the pantries. Food pantries in the Chicago area saw an 18% increase in visitors in July, compared to a year earlier, according to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
In October 2021, the USDA increased food stamp awards by updating the Thrifty Food Plan, the agency’s measure of a basket of household grocery items. Food stamp benefits for fiscal year 2022 are expected to reach $114.9 billion, down slightly from 2021 but 36.87% higher than in 2020. Food stamps accounted for less than 2% of government spending US in 2022, according to US Treasury data.
But 18 states that ended emergency declarations saw a reduction in the monthly SNAP stipend per person, effectively foregoing additional food stamp funding, according to a Reuters analysis of USDA data.
In August 2022, the agency announced a cost-of-living adjustment effective October 1, increasing the maximum monthly SNAP benefits for a family of four from $835 to $939 per month.
But many who visit pantries are still working or on Social Security, disqualifying them from food stamps, like Michael Sukowski, a retired college administration worker whose SNAP benefits were cut due to a pension. monthly he receives from the State.
“Social security and a small pension of 153 dollars a month. It doesn’t go very far,” he said. “Half of that goes to pay my rent. Then there are utilities.
The Nourishing Hope pantry, which has seen a 40% increase in visitors this year, and other pantry shops are now buying more food at higher costs. This has led to inconsistent supplies of staples such as bread, meat and cheese.
“The pickings were slim, so to speak. But I’m grateful to have stuff,” Melt said as she packed her groceries into a stroller, preparing for a bus ride home.
“Sometimes you have to come to a place like this. Sometimes you have nothing,” she said.
(Reporting by Christopher Walljasper; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Claudia Parsons)