Consumers continue to feel the impact of high inflation
Consumers are still feeling the impact of high inflation when they go to the grocery store or pump gas. Community food banks have also seen a shift in the demographics of people in need, as more seniors have trouble getting the essentials. (March 31)
Hunger in America is not abating, and in 2023, safety nets designed to catch people at their most vulnerable are seeing spikes in visits compared to last year.
Food bank leaders from across the country tell USA TODAY that their neighborhood pantries are serving more people using fewer resources as economic pressures continue to wreak havoc on the budgets of low-income Americans and service providers.
As pandemic-era increases in state food aid ended earlier this year in many states, families are turning to food banks to fill a gap in need that seems never-ending. The level of hunger is so great that some food bank CEOs compare the current moment to past economic recessions.
“From where I sit, after 28 years of food banking, what we have is the logical result of 40 years of terrible economic inequality,” said Suzanne Morgan, president of the Oregon Food Bank.
Food bank budgets ballooned below inflation in 2023, prompting some nonprofits to buy less food and cut back on services.
Data released this fall by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that food insecurity increased in 2022 for the first time in more than a decade.
“This is the worst hunger rate of my career,” said Morgan, who has worked at food banks in Boston, San Francisco and Anchorage, Alaska. “It’s so big it’s hard to wrap your head around.”
Holidays bring extra stress
During the holidays, parents, and especially mothers, feel even more pressure to provide for their families, said Eric Cooper, CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank.
“Last year, they fell behind,” Cooper said, and when about 300 families left the San Antonio Food Bank with turkeys in hand this month, he said, they felt “relieved” that they could make positive memories during Thanksgiving.
So many parents recall their holiday memories laden with the aromas of turkey and gravy, said Sherry Tussler, CEO of the Hunger Task Force food bank network of Wisconsin.
“We all have those memories,” Tussler said. “We can see our parents cut our food. We can taste it. We can see our grandmother cut a pie.”
When people can’t afford all the ingredients needed to make a special holiday meal, “it makes you sad — more than sad,” she said.
Behind the scenes, food bank staff and volunteers feel “a lot of pressure this time of year” as they frantically buy turkeys and other food items to help meet the country’s gaping needs, Tussler said.
“I don’t know if we can handle it,” Morgan said. “We will continue for the next six or nine months, but in three years I don’t know if we will be able to continue.”
How can I donate food?
Donating money or non-perishable food to food banks, pantries and soup kitchens in your area or neighborhood will go a long way to bolster their budgets and allow them to help more people, Tussler said.
The more localized the organization, the better, she said, explaining that smaller nonprofits have smaller budgets and fewer resources to begin with.
Near Fort Myers, Fla., the Gladiolus Food Pantry is asking for donations this month of frozen turkeys, stuffing, mashed potatoes, canned or jarred gravy, cranberry sauce, canned green beans, canned corn and chicken or beef broth.
The food pantry serves over 200 families living in Lee County once a week. Many are still recovering from tourism industry jobs lost to Hurricane Ian. For the past month, 40 new families have been coming in each week, said staff member Mary Burns.
“When you go to the supermarket and they do buy-one-get-one, get them. That way, you can use one and donate one,” Burns said. “Drive around your neighborhood and look for the signs that say ‘food pantry here on Sunday’ and see how you can help your neighborhood.”
Throughout the year, the pantry is always in need of food and kitchen items that people don’t normally think of, and things that kids enjoy, Burns said, especially:
- Children’s cereals.
- Shelf-stable milk that does not need to be refrigerated until opened, such as Parmalat and some nut milks.
- Peanut butter and jelly.
- Tuna fish.
- Macaroni and cheese.
- Can openers.
Local news organizations, such as newspapers or radio stations, may have online articles listing various food banks and pantries in your area. Donating to church food pantries is also a great way to start.
FoodPantries.org’s home page lists tens of thousands of food banks across the country, where users can search by state and city. The USDA website lists more than 250 of the agency’s eligible distributors here.
Demand for food banks points to economic problems
In Milwaukee County, Wis., Tussler’s network of 47 food pantries is an economic leader, she said.
“The numbers just look bad right now,” she said.
This year in Milwaukee County, food pantries saw a 50 percent increase in visits after pandemic-era supplemental SNAP distributions ended in Wisconsin in March. During the same time period and with the same SNAP cutoff, Morgan’s food bank network in Oregon saw the same thing: a 50 percent jump in demand, she said.
Those increases, combined with inflationary pressures on food banks, mean nonprofits “have to ration the food they provide because they see how long the line is,” Claire Babineau-Fontaineau, CEO of Feeding America, told USA TODAY.
In Oregon, Morgan said he worries about how long current models can last before something in the system breaks down completely.
“I worry about a vicious cycle,” she said. “I worry that 40 years of income inequality is going to hit a spot that’s very difficult for us to recover from — hitting an irreversible trend.”
Donations, government resources decreased in 2023
Food bank leaders said cash donations from the public surged in 2020 and 2021 during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It felt like a moment when the nation came together to help those most in need, Tussler said.
In 2020 and 2021, stimulus checks and the expanded child tax credit helped push US poverty to record lows. But when government resources began to dry up in 2022, poverty rates reversed.
Now, food pantries across the country are receiving fewer cash donations from the public because everyone is also feeling the inflation, Babineau-Fontaineau said.
Due to the national health emergency in 2020 and 2021, the federal government has flooded food banks with groceries through the USDA Commodity Lending Corporation.
This year, there appears to be “no additional food coming from the federal government,” Tussler said, which “exacerbates some of the challenges we have.”
“It’s the perfect storm of things that drag things down,” Babineau-Fontaineau said.
On the East Coast, the Food Bank for New York had to scale back its longstanding low-income tax refund assistance program this year because of budget constraints, said Zach Hall, who manages programs at the nonprofit.
“We weren’t naive to think that the amount of support we received during COVID would be sustainable, but demand still hasn’t returned to pre-COVID levels,” Hall said.
In the Alamo City, Cooper gave the same answer: “The need remains and the support, year after year, shrinks.”
Inflation did not decrease for food prices
After inflation peaked in June 2022, high prices eased slightly in 2023. But unlike most other consumer categories, food price inflation remains stubbornly high.
Because more of poor Americans’ income is spent at the grocery store, inflationary food prices have a greater impact on their budgets, Hall said, adding that the seniors he works with must decide whether to pay for drugs and procedures or to eat.
“These are really difficult and inhumane decisions that have to be made, and it’s not something we want to see perpetuated,” Hall said.
In San Antonio, Cooper said the families he serves report they can’t afford apples, berries and tomatoes. When that happens, he said, people buy more of the cheaper products that aren’t as healthy.
“We’re still at such a high rate of inflation for so many food categories that diets have changed,” Cooper said. “Families tend to gravitate toward more packaged dinners, carbs, starches, cheaper belly foods.”
People can improvise to save money at the grocery store, but other areas of the family budget, such as housing and gas, are much more fixed, he said.
“For any household budget, rent eats first,” Cooper said.
Among other factors, food insecurity can be measured by a lack of diversity in the diet, according to the USDA. In 2022, more Americans reported eating lower-quality diets or skipping meals altogether, the agency reported.
The food stamp program needs to be strengthened, food banks say
Food banks can support struggling Americans so much because getting a bag of groceries isn’t the same as putting money in the pocket of someone who needs it, Hall said.
“We are not a replacement for SNAP,” he said. “SNAP is the biggest and best anti-hunger program we have in the country.”
Cooper calls SNAP “our nation’s first line of defense” against hunger, helping families in a direct way while filling some gaps that food banks will never be able to fill.
“It’s so rewarding for a family to be able to go to their grocery store and choose the items that are culturally relevant,” Cooper said. “And it fits religious preferences.”
This fall, as Congress delays talks on the farm bill that funds SNAP, Babineau-Fontaineau said lawmakers should not be allowed to get away with adding restrictions to funding intended for society’s most vulnerable.
“Isn’t it remarkable that in the middle of a pandemic with supply chain crises and everything that was going on, that we actually saw a reduction in the levels of food insecurity,” she said. “Let’s not fool ourselves into believing that we don’t know that we know how to do this.”