SPOKANE — It’s a short walk to Lidgerwood Elementary for Shannon Lehman, so she pulled a wagon Tuesday afternoon to carry back food from Second Harvest volunteers.
Outside the school, the volunteers sorted bags that had eggs, produce, canned meat and pasta. With today’s higher grocery prices, the extra helps, Lehman said.
“We qualify for food stamps right now, but this still helps out because I can’t always get to the store,” Lehman said. “We have vehicle problems right now. I do work at Ross, but my husband isn’t working; he’s in construction.”
For her family with two children, Lehman also said she was thinking about Wednesday, when the pandemic-era emergency increases for food stamps — formally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — ended nationwide.
The rollback could mean families and individuals get at least $95 less per month, but for some, up to about $200 less. Meanwhile, food prices were up 10.1 percent in January from a year ago.
“I was thinking about that, that food stamps are getting cut,” Lehman said. “This today will help out because I will pass some on to his mom, if it’s food we’re not going to use, or I put some sometimes in the blessing boxes; there’s one right over here, because I know other people don’t have it as good in the neighborhood.”
Those concerns resonate statewide, according to new research that showed food insecurity remains high with increased food prices and ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The University of Washington and Washington State University began surveys in summer 2020 to measure the pandemic’s effect on food needs.
The researchers seek out largely low-income households or those on some form of food assistance. Their fourth survey in December to January tapped more than 5,000 people statewide, including 400 in Spokane.
Nearly half reported worries about having enough food.
Nearly one-third of people in homes with children reported food insecurity, which also was higher among Black residents, at 47 percent, and Hispanic residents, at 34 percent. More than half of those surveyed used at least one type of food assistance during the survey period. In Spokane County, 48 percent of people in the survey reported using food assistance.
“In a nutshell, food insecurity we know increased during the pandemic, and as of now, it remains high,” said researcher Marie Spiker, associate professor with UW’s school of public health.
The recent survey added new questions on economic security and financial outlook, “knowing that right now food prices are going up with inflation, and that families are really feeling those food prices,” Spiker added.
Spiker said that while higher prices are affecting everyone, those in the survey reporting higher food insecurity told them groceries topped a list of challenging bills.
“Fifty-four percent, or more than half of food-insecure households, report that groceries are hard to afford. Right behind that you see 51 percent of households say rent and mortgage are hard to afford,” followed by utilities and transportation, she said.
“But it was the groceries that rose to the top. That is really striking, given what we know of high housing costs.”
At Lidgerwood, two women waited in a car as volunteers brought them food. Passenger Jessica Bannister said families face price hikes for basics such as eggs and milk.
“I think when they take the extra food stamp money away, you’re going to notice a lot more people needing help,” Bannister said. “I think a lot of families at Lidgerwood are going to see it.”
The driver, Glenda Toptine, said overall higher living costs are hitting seniors.
“I don’t get food stamps, but with what I make with my Social Security, by the time I pay all my bills and stuff — with rent as high as it is and everything else — I’m lucky if I’ve got maybe $500 to live on for the rest of the month for two people, two cars, gas, everything.
“There are a lot of seniors who aren’t eligible for food stamps because they worked all their lives, so they get a retirement and probably Social Security, but then the cost of living has gone up so much — food prices are outrageous, like almost $4 for a gallon of a milk.”
Researchers wanted to provide a snapshot of the recent survey as state legislators decide about support for food assistance with at least two bills, said Shawna Beese, assistant professor at WSU extension rural health promotion.
“Our state legislators are deciding how we are going to respond as far as food benefits,” Beese said.
One hunger relief bill proposes $28 million to support food assistance programs, including $20 million in grants to shore up assistance as SNAP emergency support ends.
Other legislation explores free meals for all public school students. A universal meals program was adopted during the pandemic, when families didn’t have to apply. Those COVID measures have since been lifted, so families who meet certain income-based criteria must fill out applications for free- or reduced-price lunch.
A federal program, Community Eligibility Provision, allows schools with a high number of low-income students, determined based on their family’s enrollment in supplemental nutrition programs, to offer free meals to all students. During the 2022 session, lawmakers passed legislation that expanded the benefits to more schools. A 2023 bill intends to take this program further.
Several schools in Spokane give all students free meals, including Bemiss and Whitman elementary schools.
Steve Barnes, Lidgerwood principal, said the monthly Second Harvest mobile food outreach helps many families. The school has 325 students, and he said 125 students get the Bite2Go meals for weekend food and snacks.
“This is pretty significant, the prices you’re seeing at the grocery store,” Barnes said. “I hear that families are struggling. It’s really hitting our families who are on a fixed income, just with the amount of inflation and increased cost of groceries.”