America is facing a pandemic of hunger
Hungry girl nibbles on a breakfast bar (Shutterstock)

Demand at food banks and food pantries has dipped, but only slightly, as the job market rebounds and government stimulus programs put money in Americans' pockets, but the frayed safety net that is the emergency food system remains a lifeline for many still struggling families.

Last week the Biden administration revised the thrifty food plan definition of basic food needs, which will increase benefits for the 42 million Americans enrolled in SNAP when the changes are officially implemented in October.

Tens of thousands of food pantries scattered throughout the heartland and concentrated in cities along the coasts buckled under a surge in pandemic-driven demand last year from families. Many living paycheck-to-paycheck sought help for the first time when they lost the jobs that sustained them.

A significant source of the rise in demand has been from households that never previously experienced food insecurity.

Nonprofit Feeding America estimates that 45 million Americans — including 15 million children — experienced food insecurity at some point in 2020. Feeding America projects that 42 million people will need donated food in 2021.

In 2019, before the pandemic, 35 million Americans were food insecure, according to Feeding America.

These new higher estimates may prevail for some time because the pandemic exacerbated poverty. It also worsened physical and mental health conditions in U.S. households nationwide, which increases the risk of families becoming uncertain about their next meal.

This is the second enhancement to the long-outdated federal definition of food needs. The Biden administration's American Rescue Plan, which Congress approved in March, gave almost $3.5 billion to food-insecure households through a 15% increase in supplemental food benefits.

Who Is Affected Most

Hunger has disproportionately afflicted people of color. The pandemic did nothing to change that. Black, Hispanic, and Native American households all experienced increased food insecurity rates during the pandemic.

Poverty rates among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders pose a largely hidden problem. High levels of food insecurity in these communities get little attention, according to the Food Research & Action Center. The center found that "a shocking number of households didn't have enough to eat" during the pandemic.

Hunger dataFood Research and Action Center

Last spring, the lines at Brooklyn Rescue Mission's Urban Harvest Food Pantry, stretched down the block and meandered around the street corner. The Rev. Robert Ennis Jackson, who co-founded the pantry, said the families in line were struggling with rent and other household expenses but had time to wait to pick up bags of fresh food pre-packed by volunteers at the pantry because they had no work.

Rev. Jackson recalled the initial spikes being fueled by many first-time visitors who either never needed the assistance before or were never comfortable asking.

"Communities were hungry before the pandemic and because the message was you could feed people in the pandemic, people that were hungry became more comfortable with asking for help," Rev. Jackson said.

First Timers

Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief network nationwide, reported 4 in 10 visitors to their affiliated banks and pantries at the start of the pandemic were seeking emergency food assistance for the first time.

One of those banks, Feeding the Gulf Coast, saw a 1,000% increase in visits to the help feature on its website late last spring, the bank's Community Engagement and Advocacy Manager Kyle Schoolar said.

Schoolar said demand in the Central Gulf Coast region waned but is still higher than pre-pandemic levels.

"Even when we were taking calls to direct people to the nearest pantries, there were people who had never ever experienced food insecurity before who were seeking help for the first time just because they could not go to work, the kids were home, they were eating more food and they needed more food," Schoolar said. "It was really bad and it still is."

"We are still seeing a lot of that. The calls I've been taking most recently have been with people who are single-income families, or they say they're on social security, and the costs of things are just so expensive, they're running out of their money."

The bank serves Southern states that have traditionally been among the hungriest nationwide — specifically Mississippi, a state that had the highest food insecurity rate before the pandemic and is projected to still have the distinction in 2021.

High levels of food insecurity in the state translated into high demand at banks and local pantries. The Mississippi Food Network, a food bank that works with 430 member agencies throughout the state, distributed 42.6 million pounds of food last year, which was more than double the amount they gave out in 2018.

More Than Food

Jane Bleeg, who runs a neighborhood food pantry in Rochester, N.Y., said she sees strong demand for nonfood items in households without work and in some cases that fell between the cracks of the expanded state and federal jobless benefits programs. She said diapers, feminine sanitary products, and other essentials were all in demand.

Dr. Charles H. Beady, Jr., CEO of the Mississippi Food Network, said the amount of food the network distributes this year could be close to the 2020 total, especially with the emergence of the Delta variant in the sparsely vaccinated state. The pandemic has already breached the limits of the bank and its partner agencies, as some of the pantries and faith-based organizations that work on their frontlines closed.

"In addition to being the hungriest state in the nation, we're in one of the – if not the – poorest state in the nation," Dr. Beady said.

"And we're a rural state so we have, in those counties where we distribute food, pantries run by, in some instances, senior citizens who don't have the volunteers they always need to get the food out," he said.

Food banks rely on assistance from the federal government, primarily through The Emergency Food Assistance Program. It provides food banks nationwide with more food than they could then distribute to their affiliated pantries.

Changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's programs have also provided direct solace to food-insecure households.

About 45% of the almost $236 billion the federal government has allocated to the U.S. Department of Agriculture this fiscal year finances the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

The expansion of existing SNAP benefits was a widely discussed topic last year and never garnered complete bipartisan support, the leading opponents being GOP lawmakers who feared the increases would generate more dependency.

"I don't want to create a moral hazard for people to be on welfare," former Rep. Michael Conaway (R-TX) said in May last year amid an earlier congressional debate on expanding SNAP benefits. "SNAP is working, SNAP will increase. Anyone who qualifies is going to get those benefits. We do not need new legislation."

Fragile System

The existing program has flaws. Not everyone who needs food they can't afford to buy qualifies for help. And the benefits families receive are often insufficient.

"Doing a 15% across-the-board increase was good public policy," said Dr. Janet Poppendieck, Professor Emerita of Sociology at CUNY Hunter College. "That being said, the SNAP benefit levels are being calculated on the basis of a patently unrealistic food plan, the so-called thrifty food plan. And studies for years have shown most people spending at that level — the level of the thrifty food plan — would not obtain an adequate diet."

The result is that families often run out of SNAP benefits before the end of the month. That is then when many families have nowhere left to turn but their local food pantry said Dr. Poppendieck, who is also a Senior Fellow at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute and has written extensively on emergency food in America.

And although the federal government has aided the emergency food system throughout the pandemic, food banks and pantries say the temporary relief they offer their clients is not a sustainable solution.

"The reality is it largely depends on volunteers, it has a large dependence on the faith-based community, and it is a fragile, fragile system," said Mitch Gruber, chief partnerships officer at Foodlink, a food bank based in Rochester, N.Y.

For his dissertation, Gruber researched the treatment of food as a public utility, particularly in Rochester, which is home to a public market that ranks among the oldest nationwide selling directly from farmers to consumers. That market remained open in the past 17 months, providing people with a reliable source of fresh, affordable foods.

Gruber argues the public market's critical role in food distribution in Rochester and the rampant supply chain issues that plagued the private food industry across the country at the start of the pandemic proved the importance of government involvement in assuring fresh food is accessible to all.

But Gruber also believes there are solutions staring the government right in the face.

"We don't need to always find other workarounds, it doesn't always have to be a shiny new program," Gruber said. "SNAP program has worked well. We need to improve it, we need to expand it, but I think the last year has really shown how vital it is."