Covid-19 made hunger a critical concern as millions of Americans lost their jobs, families were homebound and supply chains were disrupted. Now inflation and war are making it worse.
Ensuring that people had enough food to feed their families wasn't a partisan issue during the pandemic, when Congress approved relief measures to boost aid. And it shouldn't be a partisan issue now, as economic and environmental pressures far beyond the control of any individual make food insecurity an enduring and defining crisis of our time. One in 6 Americans relied on food banks to survive last year — 53 million people, compared with 40 million before the pandemic. Now, even as the pandemic ebbs, the number of hungry Americans is rising again. Grocery prices have jumped 12% in the past year — the sharpest increase since 1979. Some of the nation’s largest food-relief organizations, such as the Atlanta Community Food Bank, have recently reported spikes in demand as significant as those in the early months of 2020.
As war and inflation make food more expensive and
harder to get, we must accept that hunger isn’t a passing
problem but an enduring reality
The threat is greatest for families dependent on food-relief programs such as the Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as the emergency allotments granted during the pandemic begin to expire. Children are particularly vulnerable as schools close for the summer and millions of low-income students face months without free lunches.
The combined pressures of escalating inflation, still-brittle supply chains, curtailed grain imports due the Russia-Ukraine war, and intensifying impacts of climate change are prolonging and compounding food insecurity across the world. Yet in the US, hunger is still written off by many conservative lawmakers as a personal failing that the government has no obligation to remedy now that the pandemic is no longer a public priority.
The reality is, as the economy falters and more people find it difficult to obtain food for their families, more funding is needed, not less. Lawmakers must approve emergency spending on food relief programs like SNAP and provide additional support for local food webs and food banks. Roughly 41 million Americans are currently enrolled in SNAP, with average monthly benefits of $233 a person. In 2020, the congressional pandemic relief packages allowed states to issue additional emergency food-stamp allotments of at least $95 per person — allotments that are now phasing out. Congress can — and should — immediately change the end date of these emergency allotments with a freestanding relief extension.
Congress must also expand the funds available to food banks and pantries through the Emergency Food Assistance Program; members of Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks, have requested an allocation of $450 million in annual funding and $200 million for distribution costs to meet the growing needs of hunger-relief organizations. Most urgently, Congress must also extend USDA waivers, due to expire June 30, that provide free meals to public school students and help them continue to access those meals through the summer. Lawmakers should immediately pass the Keep Kids Fed Act, which was introduced this week by a bipartisan group of senators — legislation that would extend these waivers. The House Agriculture Committee is also considering proposals to extend SNAP and expand funding for food banks — policies that should also be swiftly approved in support of American families.
Yet as SNAP funding is being debated in Washington, some Republicans are trying to do just the opposite. In a recent Agriculture Committee hearing, GOP legislators proposed to rein in SNAP spending and to require stricter eligibility rules as a way to force people back into the workforce. “I remain concerned pandemic aid is set to become endemic aid," said Glenn Thompson, the Republican leader of the House Agriculture Committee.
SNAP antagonism is not new — Republicans proposed drastic changes to SNAP in both the 2014 and 2018 farm bills — yet their logic has become even more grievously flawed and outdated.
Reduced SNAP benefits won’t force the unemployed back into the workforce for the glaring reason that a prerequisite for SNAP eligibility is employment (barring extenuating circumstances, such as if the recipient is disabled or caring for children under 6). Today, hunger in America is afflicting the employed and unemployed alike, and SNAP opponents are failing to recognize that the necessity for food aid has superseded the pandemic.
Economic instability, supply chain disruptions and curtailed grain imports are here to stay for the foreseeable future. News headlines in recent weeks have hammered home how climate change is diminishing crop yields and contributing to the rise in food prices. This month alone, wildfires have devastated farms throughout Europe, drought has continued to cripple food producers in the American West, and India has lost millions of acres of grain production due to record-breaking heat.
Some attention has been paid to severe and growing food insecurity overseas — in particular, in drought-ravaged regions of the Middle East, Southeastern African and South Asia, where hunger has escalated into full-blown famine. International aid is in such short supply that the Biden administration chose to completely exhaust the USAID funding allocated for global food aid. It was a necessary use of resources, but also a harrowing sign of the times.
Despite all this, I’m optimistic about our food future: Solutions abound in sustainable, regenerative and climate-smart agriculture, and food recovery and hunger relief strategies are becoming increasingly sophisticated. While lawmakers create better safety nets, investors can play a key role in driving funding into these crucial areas of innovation. Philanthropists and citizens can focus on donating to and volunteering in local food banks and pantries, and supporting local and regional food webs.
But the solutions will not prevail without a shift in consciousness: Acceptance that a rising tide of hunger in America is not a passing problem but an enduring reality. Establishing immediate and long-term solutions must become a moral imperative that crosses party lines.
Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion Columnist.