As families face sudden, chronic food shortages, three researchers share lessons from hundreds of interviews with the food insecure.
As families face sudden, chronic food shortages, three researchers share lessons from hundreds of interviews with the food insecure.
May 8, 2020
Clarissa Davis gets by on disability, Medicaid, and SNAP, but barely. She‘s raising her three grandchildren, and the family often runs out of food. After working her entire life, she had to quit her job as a department store manager due to health problems at age 55, and years since then have been difficult.
“Normally, I could go [to the store]—in one month I could buy everything I was out of,” she told us when we first interviewed her in 2012. “Now I’m going to have to re-evaluate how I’m spending. And right now I am pretty much out of food.”
Clarissa was part of a five-year study about food insecurity we conducted in North Carolina, and a lack of food was a constant stressor for her. She was conflicted about needing social assistance for the first time in her life and said she “felt bad” about relying on others for help. At the same time, Clarissa railed against people who judged her.
“I went to Walmart and got cussed out for using food stamps by people in line,” she told us. “[They said] that’s where their tax dollars are going because [I wouldn’t] get off my butt and get a job.” Clarissa admitted that she used to be the same way. “In my mind I would [say], ‘Look, they got all these kids and they’re getting food stamps,’ but then when I wound up needing it, I understood.”
Clarissa’s family was far from alone. One out of every nine U.S. families was facing food insecurity before the COVID-19 crisis began; given steep the rise in unemployment rates, that number is sure to climb.
The nation’s food assistance programs—including SNAP, WIC, and school meal programs—are among the last vestiges of a safety net that have been under attack for decades. Now, the pandemic threatens to tear them apart. Although the first major COVID-19 relief bill included more than $1 billion in food assistance, the COVID-19 relief bill that passed in April failed to increase monthly SNAP benefits; Democratic lawmakers are calling for the government to increase those benefits by at least 30 percent.
Still, there are plenty of signs that much more help is needed. In addition to the stunningly long lines outside food pantries and community kitchens, a new survey from the University of Arkansas found that more than 38 percent of people were food insecure (up from 11 percent one year ago), and a new study from The Hamilton Project found that children as well as adults are going without food because of food insecurity. School districts, food pantries, and community groups are also stepping in with creative ways to quickly and safely get food to families who need it.
Successfully addressing this unprecedented crisis requires big solutions, and solutions that reflect what families really need. And it helps to start by listening to people who’ve experienced food insecurity first-hand.
Between 2012 and 2017, we conducted multiple interviews with more than 120 poor and working-class families in North Carolina about how they fed their families. We learned that although people are resilient, times of crises make food insecurity worse. The impacts of disasters and collective hardships are unequally distributed, and tackling hunger during the pandemic will take imagination and systemic change.
We have identified four key factors that affect food insecurity for families, even in ordinary times. Although our study was conducted before the pandemic, these findings can inform pandemic responses by shining a light on some of the issues to be considered in any compassionate response.
As stories of egg and flour shortages make clear, keeping pantries full is challenging these days. But while middle-class families can dig around in the back of the pantry to find something to make for dinner, many poor and working-class families are already starting from scratch nearly every month. These shortages will likely only grow during this crisis.
Ashley, a mother of three, stayed home with her kids while her husband Marquan worked long hours for a fast food company. They received SNAP and WIC but still frequently ran out of food. Still, Ashley was confident in her ability to make a meal out of anything.
“I gave my kids hot dog spaghetti one time. We didn’t have any hamburger, so I just cut the hot dogs up and put them in the sauce, and they loved it,” she told us. “But tonight, we’re having neck bones, and we ate neck bones last week.”
Ashley spoke with gritty determination. But she and Marquan sometimes had to skip meals to make sure their kids had enough to eat.
Ashley, along with many of the families in our study, did most of her shopping about once a month, after she’d received their SNAP benefits. In North Carolina, like in many states, those benefits are dispersed over time so that not everyone shops at the start of the month. That monthly stock-up trip is critical for families. During the pandemic, it has been difficult to predict what will be available at the store, adding another challenge for people with empty pantries, who can’t easily substitute for ingredients they can’t find.
Everyone has a part to play to ensure that it’s not just the wealthy who can stock their pantries during the COVID-19 crisis. We can do this by resisting the impulse to hoard and buying only what we need, donating money and essential staples to our local food banks, and calling our elected officials to support policy efforts to make sure people get the food they need.
Poor families are experts at making their money stretch. The families in our study compared prices, shopped at multiple stores, and used coupons to get the best prices. But the pandemic has made food more expensive, a devastating situation for families who already spend a much larger share of their income on food. Stores can no longer guarantee that certain brands or products will be available, forcing people to substitute with more expensive options. Social distancing guidelines advise people to minimize trips to the store, making it difficult to compare prices or shop sales.
When the families we spoke to couldn’t use these strategies—because gas prices were too high, when their cars broke down and they had to rely on others for rides to the store, or when Hurricane Matthew disrupted travel in 2016—they were acutely aware of the effects on their food budgets.
Kyla, a mother of three, had been without a car for six months when we met her, complicating her ability to access food. Kyla tried her best, making the same meals for her kids that she’d grown up eating, but they ran out of food nearly every month.
“There’s times I wake up and cry because there’s nothing in here and I don’t know what I’m going to do to feed my children,” Kyla said. She lived in a rural area and had a friend who gave her rides to the grocery store. But without reliable transportation, Kyla couldn’t plan her shopping trips in advance.
“[If I had a car] I would be able to go to the stores I want; I would still go to Walmart because I feel like they’re cheap. But I would be able to actually go to the discount meat store and maybe Sam’s Club for things that I can get in bulk.”
To help families cope with rising food costs, the federal government should temporarily boost SNAP benefits for all recipients, as Democrats have proposed. The USDA should also fast-track and expand pilot programs allowing people to use SNAP benefits to shop for groceries online, especially given governmental recommendations to limit shopping trips as much as possible.
Although food insecurity is a widespread problem, access to food is uneven. People in rural areas travel farther to get to supermarkets and have fewer supermarkets to choose from; this is true across the country and it was true in our North Carolina study. While rural residents often have fewer food pantries and soup kitchens to rely on, poor urban residents are more likely to rely on public transportation, which will make it harder to safely get the food they need during the pandemic.
Food access is about more than physical access to stores and food pantries, however. Some food pantries serve only people who live in their county. Yet for some rural residents, the closest food pantry is in another county. And these pantries, struggling even before the crisis, are now stretched to their limits.
Opal, a mother of two who lived in an isolated rural area, said she didn’t know of any food pantries near her. “There is one [30 miles away],” she said. “You can go six times a year. But you have to be a resident of that town. And then they have one in [another] county, I think, but you have to go only on Saturdays and you had to go through the church.”
Importantly, the vast majority of food banks and food pantries in the United States have policies that prohibit discrimination based on religion or other criteria, but Opal’s story shows how people’s perceptions of whether certain spaces are welcoming can serve as obstacles to accessing food.
For Latinx families we spoke to who were undocumented or of mixed status, fear of deportation kept them from using emergency food resources. Their fears ramped up toward the end of our study in 2017, amidst harsh anti-immigration actions and messaging from the Trump administration. Some immigrant mothers told us they were afraid to apply for SNAP, WIC, and other programs, and some avoided certain food pantries, fearing that the police targeted them to find undocumented immigrants.
The revised “public charge rule,” which went into effect in February 2020, only makes things worse by allowing the government to deny permanent legal status to immigrants who have received public benefits like housing assistance, SNAP, or Medicaid.
Armonía, a mother of three who had moved to the U.S. from Mexico 18 years earlier, said she had nearly stopped visiting the food pantry in her community. “I don’t go, except once in a while, because they have checkpoints from the police. They might give us a ticket,” she said.
Our study found that many low-income people lacked information about resources, and others were afraid to use them. Communities and states can help by providing and publicizing up-to-date information in multiple languages like the No Kid Hungry campaign has done in North Carolina. But communities and states also need to work to reduce discomfort, stigma, and fear. No one should have to worry about risking arrest or deportation to get food for their family.
During hard times, the families in our study relied on friends and relatives to share food, and they helped others when they had extra. But because of the racial and class disparities inherent in the impacts of COVID-19, these supportive networks has been difficult and often dangerous to access during the pandemic.
Katina, a single mother of two in our study, worked as a certified nursing assistant and often relied on both her mother and her oldest daughter’s boyfriend to help with childcare. Now, to continue to feed her family, she has had to put herself and her family at risk.
Epidemiological data illustrates that COVID-19 rates of infection and death are much higher in Black and Latinx populations than among white people, in part because, like Katina, they are more likely to be on the front lines as essential (but underpaid) workers. Those front-line workers don’t have the privilege of sheltering in place, because they are less likely to be able to work from home, and thus rely on their families and communities to get through the pandemic more than wealthier, whiter populations.
The pandemic is exacerbating the existing, stark racial disparities as they relate to food insecurity, as well as health and economic outcomes.
Workers like Katina need basic protections like paid sick leave and a living wage. This is especially important for the essential workers who risk their lives to care for the sick and keep food on the grocery store shelves. These workers also need resources—adequate equipment and appropriate distancing policies—to do their jobs safely.
To ensure that stocking up on food and following recommendations to minimize trips to the store is not a privilege reserved for the wealthiest, we need a robust government response.
The Families First Act gave states more flexibility in managing SNAP, and most states have eased SNAP participation rules and added benefits. These efforts are important, but we need more.
We must continue to strengthen our existing food assistance programs, by boosting SNAP benefits for all recipients, allowing all SNAP recipients to shop online, and giving SNAP benefits to families who qualify for free or reduced school meals. But we must also address inadequate wages, lack of healthcare coverage, and profound and enduring economic and racial inequality.
No one wants to go back to the Great Depression, when people took extraordinary and desperate measures to feed their families, staying alive by begging, eating from garbage cans, and subsisting on foraged dandelions and wild onions and lettuces.
The speed and breadth of the public response to food shortages—World Central Kitchen’s delivery of meals to hospitals and homeless shelters, school districts’ efforts to provide food to their students, and many others—show that people recognize that these are unprecedented times of unprecedented need. We need our leaders to follow suit with unprecedented solutions to ensure that millions of Americans don’t go hungry.
Top photo CC-licensed by Phil Roeder.
August 2, 2021
A look back at our recent reporting on some of the people and programs making a positive difference across every aspect of our food system and society.
July 27, 2021