Hunger Continues to Plague Americans. Here’s Why—and What to Do About It. | Civil Eats

Hunger Continues to Plague Americans. Here’s Why—and What to Do About It.

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Growing up in North Philadelphia’s Hunting Park neighborhood, Barbie Izquierdo knew that the way she and her family lived wasn’t “normal.” Her Cuban-born father served time in prison for the first 10 years of her life, and her mother suffered from mental health issues that precluded her from working. Izquierdo and her older brother survived on social security income, food stamps—now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—and the generosity of their neighbors, who were also struggling but would pitch in with a can of beans or a cup of rice when the larder was bare.

Despite all this, Izquierdo says, “It wasn’t until I became a parent that I really understood what it feels like to be food insecure. What it does to you mentally I still have not recovered from.”

As a single mom, Izquierdo contended with a cold apartment, a son who was going blind, and “plenty of days when I couldn’t afford to feed myself.” She’d feed her son and daughter, who are now both teenagers, then “‘read eat:’ go into another room and read [takeout] menus, and ask, ‘What would I want to eat today?’ I was feeding my brain when I couldn’t put food into my stomach.”

Landing a full-time job was no salvation; with an hourly wage that put her $2 over the income limit for benefits—“Just enough to feel like you’re still poor but . . . not homeless”—she hit what’s called the benefits cliff and was cut off from SNAP, her childcare subsidy, cash assistance, and her kids’ free and reduced-price school lunches.

Izquierdo is now much better situated as a community empowerment manager for the advocacy organization Hunger Free America, and has recently left the sirens and gunshots of her old neighborhood for a home with a grassy yard in Florida. But she still lives with the after-effects of longstanding trauma. “I cannot eliminate the fear that all this can be taken away at any moment,” Izquierdo says. “Food insecurity is psychological warfare.”

That same fear pervaded the days of almost 35.2 million (or 10.9 percent) of U.S. residents in 2019, before COVID hit. Although the USDA found that food insecurity rose in communities of color, and in Black communities in particular, it remained steady overall. As a result, it’s clear to researchers that when federal, state, and municipal governments, along with private-sector groups, put their minds to it, they can make a dent in our country’s current and abiding needs crisis.

We have long reported on food security and wanted to dig in at this moment to better understand what works to lower food insecurity rates and why—and how we can keep it going in the long term.

Federal Assistance Programs: One Important Solution

Food insecurity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s part of a much larger knot of challenges that includes nutrition insecurity, or the lack of adequate healthy food and the resultant tilt toward diet-related diseases, and poor learning outcomes for kids; lack of self-sufficiency; and structural racism, which ensures that certain communities consistently have lower access to healthy food. The umbrella over it all is poverty, which sets all these other pieces in motion.

“The pandemic underscored a lot of things we already knew from the research, including the reminder that food insecurity should not be viewed in isolation,” says Joseph Llobrera, director of research for the food assistance team at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Nevertheless, the poverty umbrella is so wide that its components often still have to be contended with piecemeal. Let’s start with SNAP, which is widely considered by many researchers to be “one of the most effective food security programs in the country,” according to Meg Breuning, associate professor in Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions. As food insecurity numbers fluctuated in 2020, the USDA increased the maximum benefit—determined by what’s called the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP)—by 15 percent; this was the first time the effective value of SNAP had changed since the 1960s.

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As a result, says Lauren Bauer, an economics fellow at the Brookings Institute, food insecurity dipped. When that maximum benefit increase expired in September, another increase, of 21 percent, was authorized in October for 2022. “The evidence we’ve gained over the past two business cycles on the consequences of raising that maximum benefit is that spending well-targeted money on a basic necessity makes sense,” Bauer says. “SNAP solves the problem it was authorized to solve.” Similarly, the USDA increased food assistance for people enrolled in the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), a program that has lately increased the amount of fresh foods it provides to participants.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is also “highly effective in improving . . . health outcomes, not just for kids, but for mothers and parents as well,” says Llobrera. Additionally, Breuning points out that increasing the program’s fruit and vegetable allotment in October of 2021 should have been “effective” in increasing healthy food access for low-resource families. However, WIC enrollments declined during the pandemic, for reasons researchers have yet to suss out.

Cash and Cash-like Resources: Another Solution

Another win for reduced rates of food insecurity: Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) cards, which were provided to families whose children normally receive free or reduced-price school lunches that disappeared when schools shuttered. The cards, says Bauer, were rolled out in a “pretty random way across states over time, which allowed us to identify what happened when families got that grocery money. We found in the initial rollout in the summer of 2020, when things were pretty bad, that there was about a 30 percent reduction in food insecurity among children,” which lifted between 2.7 and 3.9 million kids out of hunger. She says a second study showed a comparable effect when another round of P-EBT was rolled out in 2021.

Stimulus checks also helped to drop the food insecurity numbers, as did a Child Tax Credit increase of up to $3,600 per child under the age of 6 for 2021. “When Congress finally signed off on the relief package in December 2020, we saw a downward shift in the number of folks reporting they couldn’t get enough to eat,” says Llobrera. Nevertheless, he says he’s waiting for economists and other researchers to begin to “tease apart to what extent ups or downs in the experience of food insecurity were attributable to the increase in SNAP benefits versus economic impact payments. There’s a lot of noise that’s going to require more data and time to disentangle.”

Still, Bauer says, we know that “every time a new wave of cash or cash-like resources went out to families, food insecurity went a little bit down, which says that [the approach] is a way to solve this problem.” This is one reason she and others are pleased to see the P-EBT program expanded into a Summer EBT program that Build Back Better would fund through 2024. This way, when school is out for two or three months, families will continue to have adequate resources to feed their children at home, rather than having to resort to summer feeding programs at libraries and community centers, which tend to be under-utilized.

One major obstacle—for SNAP, P-EBT, and other national benefits programs—is that “they only work for those who are enrolled,” Bauer says. And the barriers to enrollment can be high. For college students, the “complex, stressful application procedures” as well as a pre-pandemic mandate that students work 20-plus hours a week have both acted as barriers to their enrolling in SNAP, according to the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. Congress lifted some restrictions in December 2020 and, as a result, increased eligibility for 3 million students. “If we could maintain flexibility and growth of these programs and the supports we now have in place, that would be ideal,” says Breuning.

Now that children are back in school, Breuning says that the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs are important ways to increase food and nutrition security for children and to alleviate some economic stressors from families. In 2021, Maine and California were the first states in the U.S. to adopt universally free school meals for all students regardless of household income, and more states could follow their lead soon. With school food considered a reliable way to get children nutritious meals on an almost-daily basis, there’s a push to pass a similar federal law making free school meals available to every child in the U.S. “With certain states, unless it comes from the federal government, it’s not going to happen,” says Breuning.

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Emergency Feeding Networks: A Piece of the Puzzle

Vince Hall, chief government relations officer for the national food bank network Feeding America, says the expanded charitable response during the pandemic was an important factor in mitigating food insecurity rates—and the need for charitable intervention is not likely to disappear anytime soon. What will help in the future, he believes, is a $1 billion investment from the USDA in the charitable food system, some of which will assist food banks in purchasing food—including fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers, and still-edible foods that might otherwise be sent to landfills—as well as building up necessary infrastructure like refrigerated vehicles and cold storage units for distribution sites in order to keep the food fresh.

In fact, Hall says rescuing food waste is already improving healthy food access in California, where Senate Bill 1383, meant to reduce methane emanating from landfills, is sending more produce to food banks. He calls this development “encouraging.” He also says that food banks and pantries have a greater role to play in addressing other aspects of poverty, such as access to decent jobs. “There’s workforce development happening at food banks and some of our nonprofit partners operate programs at food banks such as culinary arts training programs, which have very high rates of job placement,” he says. “No one is just hungry.”

Breuning agrees. “Generational poverty remains a persistent problem and until we are able to address things like access to a living wage and access to education, we’re going to be fighting an uphill battle,” she says. And she’s frustrated by the fact that interrelated agencies that provide various assistance to low-resource folks, like the USDA, Medicare and Medicaid, and the National School Lunch Program, aren’t better coordinated. “I worked in anti-hunger before I was an academic and 20 years ago people were talking about a single application” for benefits programs, she says. “And here we are 20 years later and it’s not even on the table.”

Llobrera comes back to the interconnectedness of the challenges in confronting food insecurity. SNAP is important, he says, because it helps to relieve the pressures around health, jobs, and housing. “This frees up resources for a family or an individual to be able to adhere to their required medication,” he says. “Research shows that adults receiving SNAP miss fewer days at work because they’re not as sick because they are getting their nutritional needs met, they’re making fewer calls to the doctor, and they’re less stressed.”

Even so, he says, “We can pump in as much SNAP food assistance as possible but if people are having trouble affording housing, that can only take you so far. Solutions to food insecurity [include] affordable housing and the stable availability of jobs that pay enough so that people aren’t pinched on a number of different human needs. The solution is going to have to be comprehensive and broad.”

One key aspect of that broad solution involves the fight for a living wage. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for over a decade, and while state and local efforts to increase hourly pay for food workers and farmworkers, as well as universal guaranteed income programs provide some progress, federal legislation to increase the minimum wage have stalled in Congress.

Will there be enough political will to address these overlapping concerns in the Build Back Better plan? The researchers are watching, but not holding their breath. “The last administration made it hard to be hopeful,” says Breuning.

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Meanwhile, with pandemic supports beginning to wind down, Barbie Izquierdo continues to find herself stretched financially thin. “I’m still surviving on P-EBT benefits, and the Child Tax Credit has been helping me stay afloat. I don’t know what life will be like without that extra little bit of help,” she says.

Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering food policy and agriculture, sustainability, and science for outlets such as The Guardian, The Counter, City Monitor, JSTOR Daily, Sierra, and Ensia in addition to Civil Eats. She’s also the author of science books for kids. Find her at lelanargi.com and @LelaNargi. Read more >

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