Why U.S. food insecurity still looms, even amid recovery

Washington

While hunger and insecurity have decreased significantly over the last six months across the United States, the demand for food remains high above the pre-pandemic level. Experts in the field of hunger management warn that millions of families are still facing a very difficult situation.

An Associated Press review of bulk distribution numbers from hundreds of food banks across the country revealed a clear downward trend in the amount of food handed out across the country, starting in the spring as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout took hold and closed sectors of the economy began to reopen.

“It has fallen, but it is still high,” Katie Fitzgerald, the COO at Feeding America said. Feeding America is a non-profit organization that coordinates efforts of over 200 food bank across the nation and provided data to the AP on national distribution. She said that, despite recent declines in food distributions by FeedingAmerica’s partners food banks, it was still 55% higher than pre-pandemic levels. She said that [food insecurity] may increase if there are too many shoe drops.

Amid concerns of the delta variant other obstacles include the gradual expiration of several COVID-19-specific protections, such as the eviction moratorium, and expanded unemployment benefits. All in all, food-insecure families are still dependent upon outside help and vulnerable to unexpected difficulties.

” Although people are returning to work, it is slow and expensive.

Nationally, the food banks that work with Feeding America saw a 31% increase in the amount of food distributed in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the first quarter of 2020, just before the global pandemic reached America. The immediate impact of the March 2020, school and office closures was felt In the first quarter of 2020;, Feeding America-affiliated food bank distributed 1.1 million pounds of food. The number rose 42% and soared to over 1.6 billion. A smaller increase of 5% was seen in the third quarter, reaching nearly 1.7 million pounds. Recent data shows that distributions have declined since the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021,. However, the drop has stalled.

The national data are mirrored by the individual experiences of food banks throughout the country. The Alameda Community Food Bank, Oakland, California noticed a spike in community needs in the winter and spring. The organization distributed 5 million pounds worth of food in February 2021,, a new record. This record was held for just one month, as 6 million pounds of food were distributed in March 2021.

After March’s peak, numbers began to fall steadily. They dropped down to 4.6 millions pounds in August 2021. However, this is still less than the 2.7 million pounds that were reported in June 2019..

” The recovery will be long and difficult for families that are often dependent on food banks,” stated Michael Altfest (director of community engagement at the food bank). Altfest stated that the coronavirus outbreak was an added trauma to families already struggling with food insecurity. It also introduced new clients, who were not familiar with food banks but have been financially pushed by the crisis. These two groups are expected to continue needing assistance throughout next year.

“Things don’t get any easier for low- or moderate-income households and we don’t think it will for a while,” said Mr. Altfest.

Ranada James is one of the newcomers to food banks. Ranada James, a child care specialist who had previously received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP), but hadn’t dealt with a food bank prior to the outbreak. An overcast Wednesday saw Ms. James join a small group of people who waited in line to get into their car for The Arc’s weekly drive-through food pantry in the southeast Washington area. This is the most deprived part of Washington. Ms. James was loaded by volunteers with hot meals and lunch sacks as well as fresh produce from The Arc’s garden. Also, sealed durable goods boxes were added to her car.

” “I didn’t think I would use it,” she stated. “It helped tremendously, and it still really helps.”

Even as the situation slowly improves, Ms. James finds herself in need. Two of her grandchildren, as well as two nieces and nephews live with her. She keeps them away from school in person because of fears of pandemic. This means that she cannot return to work.

” They really do eat,” she laughed, and added that fresh string beans and broccoli were her favorite foods. “They’re growing, and they’re picky.”

Other food banks across the country are reporting similar trends: a gradual decrease this year, starting in about April, but still far higher than any pre-pandemic numbers. According to Kym Dildine, co-CEO of the Central California Food Bank, numbers at Fresno have “levelled off” over recent months, but are still 25% greater than in 2019,.

“Many are out of work, especially women who care for the children at home,” she stated.

The Capital Area Food Bank, Washington, D.C., distributed more food in July 2021 than it did in July 2019.. Radha Muthiah, the president of the food bank said

“COVID “isn’t over” “We’re still seeing existing need.”

Just how long the elevated level of need will last is a matter of debate, with the most conservative estimates projecting it will last well into next summer. Many are saying that food banks in the United States may not be able to return to their normal levels.

Parallel government programs such as SNAP, which are commonly known for food stamps and supplemental food assistance, saw an epidemic-fueled rise in use. According to the Department of Agriculture (which administers SNAP), SNAP usage increased 7 million between 2019 & 2021.. The permanent 25% increase in SNAP benefits was instituted by President Joe Biden on August 1.

The SNAP program is not enough to cover every family that needs it. Ms. Muthiah stated that many clients who rely on food banks to get their nutrients are either not eligible for SNAP benefits or intimidated by bureaucratic paperwork. Some even fear applying because of their immigration status. Food banks are the only source of assistance for millions of people who are hungry.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the AP that at the peak of the pandemic, 14% of American adults were receiving SNAP benefits. He said that while this number has fallen to 8% now, the need for food banks and other nonprofit charities like food banks still exists. They help fill the gaps in families’ budgets.

” We just have to see what the pandemic did to disrupt a system that was likely quite fragile to begin with,” stated Mr. Vilsack who previously held the same Cabinet position under President Barack Obama. “It has exposed the fragility of the system, which makes programs like SNAP, programs like summer feeding programs, school feeding programs, food bank assistance ever more important.”

Mr. Vilsack said the Biden administration has moved to strengthen the national food bank infrastructure by devoting $1 billion in June to help fund refrigerated trucks and warehouses that will allow food banks to store and provide more fresh fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Now, the nation’s food banks network are busy projecting the need for the future. They take into account multiple factors including positive and negative. In theory, the Child Tax Credit Boosted payments that began in July are intended to ease the monthly financial burden of lower-income families and middle-class families. They provide money for families to spend as they wish. But food bank executives and researchers estimate that it could take six to 12 months to see a real impact on food security as families initially devote those funds to issues like rent or car repairs.

The end of the national eviction moratorium is a significant pressure point and could lead to vulnerable families being forced back into financial crisis. The federal moratorium was allowed to end in August by the Biden administration, but Congress didn’t extend it. The federal government now concentrates on funding rental assistance programs, while the federal moratorium has become a network of regional moratoriums in Washington, D.C., Boston, New York, and other places. Each moratorium expires on different dates.

Volunteers at the drive-thru food pantry in southeast Washington have made friends with many of their regulars including Rob Simms and Devereaux Simms. Retired bus driver and school aide both consider themselves to be middle-class and have never received food stamps. Devereaux Simms stated that when two of their children lost their jobs due to the pandemic, “things began running low.”

With three grandkids at home now, the family is a fixture at Wednesday’s drive-thru. The grandchildren often take home small supplies to give to their neighbors, and they recently gave small presents to the volunteers.

“God’s been good to us,” Devereaux Simms said, “and you should never be too proud to accept help.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. This report was contributed by Michael Casey, AP reporter in Boston, and Camille Fassett, data journalist in Oakland, California.

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