As the COVID pandemic upended the economy in the spring and summer of 2020, tens of millions of Americans lost their jobs and became ever more vulnerable to hunger. In consequence, the country’s network of food banks saw a sudden spike in usage.
Just prior to, and at the start of the pandemic, food banks distributed 1.1 billion pounds of food in the first quarter of 2020. By the fall of that year, they were handing out 1.7 billion pounds.
Since then, that dizzying increase has leveled off or fallen somewhat in many places, but that doesn’t mean the country’s no longer suffering an epidemic of food insecurity. To the contrary: Large food banks around the country are still reporting far higher levels of need — and of food distribution to attempt to meet that need — than was the case prior to COVID.
In Washington, D.C. for example, the big food banks are reporting an increase in usage of more than 60 percent compared to 2019. Put simply, as Thanksgiving rolls around again, millions of Americans are struggling to feed their families the bare minimum on a daily basis. If they are able to have a big spread, it will likely be only thanks to food charities and their volunteers and donors.
Meanwhile, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollment is up by 7 million compared to two years ago, with more than 42 million Americans now on food stamps. Of these, more than 4 in 10 are members of families with at least one person working.
Throughout much of the South, upward of 15 percent of residents receive SNAP assistance. In New Mexico, the state with the highest rate of food stamp usage in the country, more than one in five residents are enrolled in SNAP. It was in response to the increased reliance on SNAP that the Biden administration, earlier this year, locked into place the largest ever permanent increase in the value of food stamps. Because of this increase, a family of four now qualifies for up to $835 per month in SNAP benefits.
Looked at one way, these numbers, and the resilience of SNAP in the face of long-standing conservative antipathy to the program, are success stories: Tens of millions of Americans do not have enough economic security to easily feed themselves and their families, but thankfully the country does not have an epidemic of starvation. Instead, its charitable networks have gone into overdrive — and a food distribution mechanism has been fine-tuned to keep hunger at bay for the vast majority of recipients. At the same time, SNAP has become the de facto success story of an otherwise withered social safety net.
Looked at another way, however, and these numbers are a devastating indictment of the current U.S. economic model: In the world’s richest country, with more billionaires than anywhere else on Earth, a large percentage of the population lacks the ability to set aside the financial resources to be able to easily feed themselves and their children. Instead, they have to fall back either on charity or on government assistance. Many people who rely on food aid have jobs — just not jobs that pay enough of a living wage to allow them to buy food for their families.
In the South, in particular, where in few places does the local minimum wage exceed the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour (less than half what it is in cities and states that moved toward the $15 per hour “living wage” in recent years), the scandal of food insecurity for the working poor remains omnipresent.
This is a crisis — magnified, though by no means created, by the pandemic — not of food-production failures but of skyrocketing inequality. There is, clearly, no shortage of food in the U.S., but there is a shortage of disposable income among a growing percentage of people at the bottom of the economy. We have, as a society, become inured to the stunning realities of families experiencing shortages of food amid a broader glut of staples.
As the country gears up to celebrate a holiday that for many people revolves around copious feasting with family and friends, that crisis has been exacerbated by months of high inflation, especially in key sectors of the economy such as fuel and food. Some meats have increased in prices by nearly 10 percent this past year. More worryingly, this summer in several food categories, such as eggs, prices began escalating by 3 percent per month.
If that continues for a significant period of time, it will have massive impacts on the purchasing power of poor Americans, who already spend a vastly disproportionate part of their limited income on food. While the average amount of disposable personal income that Americans spend on food for preparing at home declined from 13.7 percent in 1960 to 5.7 percent in 2000 as incomes rose and as food costs declined, this has never held for poor Americans: In fact, U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates from five years ago found that the poorest quintile of Americans were still spending between 28 and 42 percent of their pre-tax income on food.
Given that low-income Americans are also being particularly hard hit by surges in prices for housing, fuel, and a range of consumer goods such as used cars, the inflationary trends within the food industry threaten to render their economic tightrope walk even more dangerous.
As a result, even as the overall unemployment rate has returned to near pre-pandemic levels, with latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing 4.6 percent unemployment, even as overall poverty rates have gone down to near-historically low levels due to huge levels of government intervention in the economy, food insecurity remains prevalent in the U.S.