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Thursday, November 30, 2023
Nov. 30, 2023

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Lines stretch down the block at food banks as costs go up and pandemic aid expires


The line outside Boston’s American Red Cross Food Pantry on a recent Saturday morning stretched the length of two football fields.

The number of people filing into the red-brick industrial-zone warehouse on some days now exceeds the worst periods of the pandemic economic crisis and in April it had the second highest monthly traffic since it opened in 1982, according to David Andre, the director.

His organization, like food banks across the country, has been flooded with requests for help since food-stamp recipients were hit with a double blow: the expiration of a temporary boost in benefits put in place during the pandemic and onerous grocery prices, which are running 24% above pre-COVID levels.

“It’s a hunger cliff — inflation and ending these emergency allotments,” Andre said. “People are really crashing.”

About 32 million Americans had their monthly food stamp benefits cut at the end of February, on average by about $90 per person — though some households experienced much deeper reductions.

The end of the emergency allotment for food stamps largely completes the unwinding of a series of coronavirus relief measures that staved off a wave of destitution during the crisis and even brought child poverty rates down to a 20-year low. Many more Americans now are going hungry than at the peak of the pandemic aid. Some 24.6 million adults didn’t have enough to eat in early April versus 16.7 million the same month two years ago, the Census Bureau estimates.

And Republicans are seeking new restrictions on food aid and cuts to safety-net programs as a price for raising the debt ceiling.

At the same time, food prices have soared more than any other major category of consumer costs except energy since the start of the pandemic, disproportionately burdening poor Americans who devote a larger share of their resources to such essential expenses. Since February 2020, the last month before the pandemic lockdown, grocery prices have surged half again as much as the 16% increase in overall consumer prices.

In the first quarter alone, global foodmaker Nestlé SA reported raising prices in North America 12.4% compared to last year. Unilever Plc raised prices 13.4% globally in its food division.

Melissa Lopes, a disabled 40-year-old in Boston with a kidney transplant and two children at home, has started going to the Red Cross food pantry once, sometimes twice a week since her benefits were cut. Yet she’s rationing chicken and whatever other meat she gets against adolescent appetites.

“They’re like ‘Mama, I want two pieces, I want three,’” Lopes said. “They’re boys. They’re big. They want more. They used to get seconds or more.”

Concerns are rising of a recession on the horizon, adding to the peril for households on edge. Morgan Stanley economists said the expiration of the pandemic food stamp benefit is already weighing on economic growth and project an annualized $50 billion hit to disposable income.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as food stamps are formally known, provides low-income families and individuals with benefits loaded onto a card that can be used to buy food and non-alcoholic beverages but not other items. The benefits account for about 12% of US food and beverage sales, making it an important source of revenue for supermarkets such as Kroger Co. and supercenters such as Walmart Inc. A Moody’s analysis forecasts supermarkets will more than make up for the loss of sales through price increases and consumers diverting spending from other retailers.

National figures for food banks aren’t yet available. But calls to local 211 community service help lines seeking referrals to food pantries jumped 9.8% March 1 through April 16 compared to the two months before the benefits reduction in affected states, according to an analysis by Washington University in St. Louis’s Health Communication Research Laboratory.

The Haymarket Regional Food Pantry in Gainesville, Virginia, an outer Washington suburb, added 55 new weekly intake appointments in April after a 90% increase in families seeking food. The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which supplies more than 1,100 local pantries around the rural Susquehanna Valley, faced 10% more demand in March. At Southern Colorado’s Care and Share Food Bank, which distributes to soup kitchens, pantries and emergency shelters across 29 mostly rural counties, requests for aid rose 20%.

Even with help from a local food pantry, Niccole Cervanyk, a 45-year-old discount-store manager and single mother in Pueblo, Colorado, said she has had to curtail snacks she used to provide her children for after-school sports practices and scrimp on dinner.

“You have to cut the proportions of food down,” said Cervanyk, whose food stamp benefits dropped $500 a month. “Having three teenage kids, that’s not good. They’re still hungry.”

Nathan Springer, a retired army colonel who is president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Springs-based Care and Share Food Bank, said his organization is seeing more requests for groceries from military families, teachers, nurses and even dual-income couples following the cut in assistance.

“We’ve seen young full-time employees who are for the first time facing hard decisions: Are we going to buy food or pay our utility bills?” Springer said.

The expiration of the SNAP pandemic aid affected residents of 32 states and Washington, D.C. The added benefits already had stopped in 18 states that acted on their own to drop COVID emergency declarations.

Still, even without the extra pandemic assistance, SNAP beneficiaries receive more food aid than they would have before the COVID outbreak, said Craig Gundersen, a Baylor University economics professor who studies food assistance programs and poverty.

The Biden administration permanently raised the average SNAP benefit by 27% in October 2021, the first increase beyond adjustments for inflation in more than 45 years, following a review of benefit levels Congress ordered in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The extra pandemic allotment also was a blunt tool designed for a temporary crisis that risked distorting work incentives if continued indefinitely, Gundersen said. Unlike normal SNAP benefits, they were structured in such as a way that in some cases recipients who earned extra money could lose more in benefits.

Overall, the average SNAP benefit per person climbed from $121 a month just before the pandemic to $256 in January, shortly before the emergency allotment ended.

Yet decades-high rates of food, energy and rent inflation place an extraordinary burden on many SNAP beneficiaries, Gundersen said. In most cases, food stamps only cover a portion of grocery costs. And families already on the financial edge may have depended on the extra food aid for years.

“We’re in for a big adjustment period these next months,” said Springer, the Colorado food bank director. For the families that his food pantries help feed, “a few hundred dollars less a month is a lot.”

Heather Thomas, a 48-year-old disabled mother of four in Centreville, Virginia, married to an unemployed Air Force veteran, said she suddenly lost almost $600 a month in benefits, unsettling her family. Her 13-year-old son grew moody, less attentive at school and started getting headaches.

“It’s because he was not eating like he was before,” she said, “because he was trying to not eat as much to stretch the benefits for his siblings.”

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