Experts: Impending ‘hunger cliff’ could affect millions
Hunger is once again on the rise in America. Experts say it is about to get worse – and it could get a lot worse.
New U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey data released this week show 11.2 percent of households reported they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat during the previous week, compared to 10.3 percent who said the same thing during the previous reporting period in March, and compared to 8.6 percent in August 2021 – a time when inflation had not kicked in and monthly expanded Child Tax Credit payments were in full swing. For families with children, the rate of food scarcity was 14.5 percent. For Blacks, it was 22.6 percent; for Latinos, 26.0 percent.Two million more people living with children reported having had too little to eat in early April than in the last half of August.
Experts point to a triple whammy of reasons why hunger is on the rise and why the rise likely will continue. First was the cut-off of monthly CTC payments of $250-$300 per child in December – indeed, Household Pulse Survey data showed an immediate increase in food scarcity rates beginning in January. Other forms of assistance also ended in 2021 – stimulus checks and expanded UI benefits, for example. Even worse, 10 states have ended their participation in federal COVID emergency SNAP benefits even though the federal government has extended the emergency declaration through July 15 (another two states will end their emergency benefits in May). The emergency benefits are much higher than regular SNAP amounts. Some people have seen their benefits plummet from $250 to $20 per month.
Second, inflation is cutting deeply into the budgets of people with low incomes, who need to spend most of their money on food, rent, gas, and utilities. Inflation is also hitting the nation’s networks of food banks particularly hard – in an urgent appeal issued earlier this week, Feeding America said every aspect of its network of hundreds of food banks has been affected by inflation, including purchasing food, transporting donated food, energy for cold storage, and other costs including fuel, wages, and even vehicle maintenance seeing significant increases. Feeding America said food banks are purchasing nearly as much food as they did in 2021, but are now paying 40 percent more for those purchases.
Third, cuts to government aid programs are coming – in fact, in some states, they already have arrived, due to pandemic-era emergency declarations expiring. “On average, when the Public Health Emergency declaration ends, participants in emergency allotment states will lose $82 a month in SNAP benefits,” Feeding America said in its emergency appeal for federal and private-sector assistance. “For participants who qualify for the minimum SNAP benefits, their monthly allotments will plunge from $250 to a mere $20.”
The Biden Administration recently extended the federal pandemic public health emergency (PHE) into mid-summer. The Food Resource & Action Center (FRAC) notes that a number of SNAP-related measures approved in 2020 expire when the PHE does and millions of Americans could lose benefits as a result. “A PHE termination threatens to result in a significant ‘hunger cliff’ for millions of people,” the group wrote in a recent blog post.
Also on the horizon? USDA waivers aimed at getting food to hungry kids expire in June unless Congress agrees to an extension.
Out in California, which has the highest gas prices in the nation, food banks are seeing an influx of people seeking help – faces they had not seen before the cost of groceries and gas spiked. The numbers of people visiting food banks actually had dropped at the very beginning of the year, but now has spiked.
Observers say the issue for food banks is two-fold – they are dealing both with the higher costs for food and for the gas they must purchase in order to transport the food they buy to local pantries. In December, reports the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services paid a wholesale price of 93 cents per dozen for eggs. Last week, the group paid $2.20 per dozen.
“What we’re looking at is several elements of what we call a food cliff, all colliding at the same time,” Becky Silva, Senior Policy Advocate for the California Association of Food Banks, told the Times. “The national discourse is that the pandemic is ending, but we know the hardships associated with it, and its impact on families’ economic status, is continuing. Hunger is actually getting worse as these federal provisions that are meant to help people are starting to go away. It’s too soon for us to stop supporting people.”
According to the Times, the Food Bank of Santa Barbara County has seen a 30 percent increase since the final three months of last year in both pounds of food distributed and clients served. Administrators pointed to inflation and the end of monthly CTC payments as the two primary causes. Earlier this month, the organization even gave a cost-of-living raise to some of its employees as gas prices soared – the average cost of gas in California is now $5.70 a gallon.
“Inflation is the major issue. We saw our numbers begin to trail off and we thought, ‘Great, we’re getting over COVID.’ Now we’re up again,” said Santa Barbara Food Bank CEO Erik Talkin. “Food and gas are significant for individual people – if you’re a low-income family then you spend a big chunk of your money on those two things that are the hardest hit. But it’s also significant for the food bank. We’re spending a lot of money on the logistics of moving food around.”
Like the impact of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and other reasons for rising prices are circumstances beyond the control of any family. The federal government must continue to protect our people from hunger. Extending and expanding federal nutrition benefits and renewing the monthly Child Tax Credit would be two effective ways to help families have enough to eat.