Hungry families need our help. So do the food banks that feed them.
Among the most enduring images of pandemic year 2020 were mile-long car lines as families suddenly beset by unemployment inched their way toward relief in the form of food banks.
Such disturbing imagery is unlikely to return soon – the economy is rebounding after a record-breaking 2021, and the number of families seeking assistance is down precipitously from March and April 2020. But more families are reporting a lack of food, and visits to food banks are once again on the increase, in large part due to the rising cost of groceries, gas, and rent – three spending areas that disproportionately hit families with low incomes in times of inflation.
And increasingly, food banks themselves are among those feeling the pain.
Federal programs aimed at helping food banks have expired and that fact – along with broken supply chains and the rising cost of food – has led to a seven-fold increase in the amount of money the D.C.-based Capital Area Food Bank is budgeting for food purchases, compared with pre-pandemic times.
According to the Washington Post, food banks in the vast Feeding America national network moved twice as many truckloads of food in February 2022 as they did in the mostly pre-pandemic month of February 2020. And not only are transportation costs up 20 percent from two years ago, the food they are purchasing and moving is much more expensive – a truckload of canned tuna cost $46,000 in February 2020 and is now $57,000; a truckload of peanut butter was $34,000 and is now $40,000; and a truckload of diced tomatoes was $15,000; now it’s $23,000.
Feeding America expressed sharp disappointment after Congress failed to adequately address in its omnibus spending bill two areas that would have helped food banks and reduced future hunger in America – adequately funding the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and extending USDA nutrition assistance waivers that, during the pandemic so far, have made it easier to get meals to schoolchildren. Those waivers expire June 30.
“The absence of support for these investments in federal nutrition programs is a blow to our neighbors facing hunger,” the organization said in a statement. “This is at a time when families are also facing the loss of the expanded Child Tax Credit, rising prices at the grocery store and gas pump, and an ongoing pandemic.”
The fact that Feeding America’s statement specifically mentioned the CTC was no accident. Although the CTC is not strictly a nutrition assistance program, it did provide nutrition assistance – and lots of it. The expanded CTC, before it expired in December, provided $550 a month for a family with one child under age six and one child between ages 6 and 17, and we know from research that many families with low incomes spent a significant amount of their CTC payment on food. The loss of those funds, coming when prices were just starting to rise, has dramatically contributed to poverty and hardship in the early months of pandemic year 2022.
We also know that various forms of supplemental income measures passed by Congress from 2020 to 2021 helped keep hunger levels down during much of the first two years of the pandemic.
According to an important analysis recently published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, from August 2020 to December 2021, the share of adults in households without enough to eat in the last seven days fell a statistically significant amount on three occasions after federal aid was distributed. It fell in early January 2021, after the Treasury Department beginning in late December 2020 issued stimulus checks worth $600 per person. It fell in late March 2021 after additional stimulus checks worth $1,400 were issued. And it fell again in late July 2021 after the first expanded monthly CTC payments went out. But in the absence of this assistance, and with prices rising, the number of people with children who said they didn’t always have enough to eat in the previous week rose from 8 million in late July to 10.7 million in early February.
One person who knows well how important the monthly CTC payments were is Chelsi Lewis, a single mother of three who lives in Rockville, Maryland and attends school full-time at Bowie State University. She received her monthly CTC check until the last payment in mid-December, and during the pandemic also received enhanced unemployment benefits after losing her job with UPS as well as an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card to supplement school meals – all of these benefits have expired.
Now Lewis, who shared her story with the Washington Post, finds herself spending money that was meant for the electricity bill on food for her children. She wonders how she will put gasoline in her car to take her high school twins to track meets and jobs.
And she cuts back on her own food.
“I’ve been winging it,” Lewis said. “There are some nights I don’t eat because I only have enough to feed them. I’ll eat whatever is left over on their plates. I just tell them I’m not hungry.”