Introduction and summary
Some of the most poignant and enduring images from the pandemic were of the lines of people snaking around food banks as millions of Americans lost their jobs and faced increased food insecurity—some for the first time in their lives. Food insecurity is essentially financial insecurity: When individuals and families do not have enough money to eat, they are forced to prioritize other necessary expenditures, such as rent and bills, over food.
The United States has long struggled with unacceptably high rates of food insecurity,1 but these rates have worsened over the past two years due to the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic—including increased unemployment, reduced hours at work, the closure of schools and child care facilities, high rates of infection and death, and food inflation. While many of these conditions are easing as the economy recovers, food insecurity remains unacceptably high for millions of people across the country.
While imperfect, the federal response to the pandemic has kept the worst of food insecurity at bay through temporary expansions of benefits and eligibility of food programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program, and the Commodity Supplemental Food program. At the same time, measures including the expanded child tax credit (CTC) and direct stimulus checks, have helped increase individuals’ disposable income and given them more purchasing power.2 The Biden administration has also taken a whole-of-government approach to cracking down on anti-competitive behavior—particularly in the meatpacking industry—to help lower food prices.3
In a modern economy, and especially in the wealthiest country in the world, no one should struggle to put food on their table.
Despite these measures—and given the recent expiration of some of the expansions—it is unsurprising that food insecurity is rising once again. To address this issue, Congress must take immediate action to invest in modernizing and strengthening access to affordable food and nutritional supports.4
Food insecurity has fluctuated over the past two years, but low-income people consistently feel the pinch
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity skyrocketed. From April 2020 to December 2020, more than 25 million households reported that they did not have enough food to eat during the week.5 However, one year later, in December 2021, one-third fewer households experienced food insufficiency than in December 2020.6
Indeed, federal emergency funding through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA),7 the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES),8 and the American Rescue Plan (ARP)9 provided a cushion that helped millions of families and workers weather the worst of the health and economic crises. Moreover, federal programs such as the expanded CTC, EITC, unemployment insurance (UI), and stimulus checks helped ease individual and family needs, providing some added financial security when millions were out of a job.10 In part due to these measures, households experienced increases in their real (inflation-adjusted) disposable income, helping them make ends meet. In fact, in 2021, households had $337 more in real disposable income each month than they did in 2019,11 and many low-wage workers in particular experienced real wage increases.12 Meanwhile, federal food programs such as SNAP, P-EBT, and TEFAP ensured that the lowest-income and most vulnerable individuals—including older adults, those with disabilities, school-age children, single mothers, and infants—had access to food and nutritional supports.
Yet several of these program expansions have expired, and as a result, from March 2 to March 14, 2022, 21.7 million households reported food scarcity during the week, including nearly 10.7 million households with children under the age of 18.13 Importantly, while hunger is an issue that affects everyone, it disproportionately affects marginalized groups, such as individuals with disabilities, families of color, and LGBT people, compounding deeply entrenched structural inequities.14 (see Figure 1)
Food inflation is contributing to food insecurity
Although the economy is recovering and jobs are continuing to bounce back at a record pace, food inflation remains high, contributing to food insecurity across the country, particularly for the poorest Americans. From February 2021 to February 2022, inflation rose by 7.9 percent to a 40-year high, and food prices also increased by 7.9 percent over those 12 months.15 For example, the price of meats, poultry, fish, and eggs increased 13 percent from February 2021 to February 2022.16 High food prices have a large effect on food access and affordability. However, these increases in costs are felt most acutely by lower-income households, who spend a higher percentage of their income on necessities such as food.17 In 2020, households in the lowest-income quintile typically spent more than a quarter of their income on food, compared with households in the highest income quintile, who spent an average of 7 percent of their income on food.18
12-month increase in both inflation and food prices, February 2021 to February 2022
Historically, food and nutrition benefit programs such as SNAP have been a critical support for millions of Americans. Nevertheless, they are insufficient for low-income individuals and families, many of whom run out of benefits before the month’s end. Fortunately, in October 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture adjusted the SNAP benefits amount, giving low-income Americans an average of $36.24 per person in additional monthly benefits.19 However, inflation and the rising cost of food have eroded the purchasing power of this increased benefit.
Furthermore, while SNAP benefits are adjusted for inflation annually, the adjustment timetable does not reflect today’s economic reality, in which prices are rising rapidly.20 When prices at the grocery store increase, lower-income households—who are disproportionately families of color who already have tight budgets—are forced to stretch their usually fixed incomes to cover increased costs, often requiring them to make tough choices about paying rent, putting food on the table, heating their homes, or affording child care. And it is not only food prices that are rising; the cost of gas, housing, home heating and cooling, and electricity have been rising steadily as well, hitting low-income individuals and families especially hard.
What is causing today’s inflation?
Federal aid has helped the economy recover at a record pace, but supply has failed to keep up with pent-up demand and a shift in consumer spending from services to goods.21 Strong consumer demand—along with pandemic-related supply chain shortages and delays, concerns around worker safety, and a lack of good jobs—has played a role in current inflation.22 In addition, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March 2022 led to new price pressures, particularly around the cost of gas,23 while corporations continue to record high profit margins while raising prices.24 And despite strong wage growth—particularly among low-wage workers who have experienced stagnant wages for decades—inflation continues to erode spending power, resulting in an uptick in financial insecurity as individuals struggle to recover from the pandemic.
Low-income households are being stretched thin and continue to struggle with a food sufficiency crisis. According to a recent survey by Credit Karma, one-third of respondents with household incomes of less than $50,000 report that rising inflation has made it difficult to afford groceries, and 38 percent of respondents with one or more children under the age of 18 report that they can no longer afford groceries for themselves and their families.25 When individuals and families struggle with food insecurity, they turn to food banks and food pantries to access donations that can supplement their diets. Yet disruptions to the supply chain due to COVID-19 and the higher cost of food are also affecting these community-based food networks. In the Greater Boston area, for example, the price of bananas increased from $10 to $12.30 per case in just two weeks. Meanwhile, the price of apples increased by 20 percent, the price of citrus increased by 7 percent, and the price of packaged salads increased by 5 percent during the same time span, forcing community-based food networks to spend more while community and individual needs increased.26 In another example, the Capital Area Food Bank, which supports hunger needs in the Washington, D.C., area, has had to grow its budget for purchasing food to seven times its pre-pandemic level due to both higher costs and higher demand. In addition, food banks across the country are not only paying more to buy food but are also facing higher transportation and distribution costs and labor shortages.27
Large corporations may also be contributing to food insecurity by taking advantage of excess demand and higher input costs. According to Accountable.US, a government watchdog group, 30 companies—including Walmart, Kroger, McDonalds, and Starbucks—raised consumer prices while collectively boosting their profits by $151 billion from December 2020 to December 2021. These companies also bought back an additional $28 billion of their own shares, a strategy designed to boost stock prices and executive compensation.28 Meanwhile, The New York Times found that business for Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the United States and the fourth-largest employer in the Fortune 500, has boomed during the pandemic: The company reported that it was expecting sales growth of almost 14 percent over two years and that company stock has risen by about 36 percent over the past year. However, this success is not shared by the company’s employees, with food insecurity existing even within the food system. Indeed, approximately 75 percent of Kroger employees have indicated that they are food insecure; 14 percent said they were homeless or had been homeless in the previous year; and 63 percent said they did not earn enough money to pay for basic expenses every month. Kroger’s chief executive made $22.4 million in 2020, while the median employee earned $24,617—a ratio of 909 to 1.29
A case study: Food insecurity at Kroger
Percentage of Kroger employees who reported being food insecure
Increase in Kroger’s stock from 2020 to 2021
Income for Kroger’s chief executive in 2020
Median income among Kroger employees in 2020
Similarly, on the supply chain side, a few large corporations tend to dominate segments of the food industry, raising prices, squeezing out small businesses, and decreasing options for American families. For example, four large meatpacking companies control 85 percent of the beef market; four processing firms control about 70 percent of the pork market; and the top four poultry processing firms control 54 percent of the poultry market.30
The federal response spurred economic recovery and helped households by boosting incomes
While inflation is undoubtedly affecting millions across the country, food insecurity would have been much worse without the quick and targeted federal response to the pandemic. Federal investments through the FFCRA, CARES Act, and ARP expanded access and benefits to UI, the CTC, EITC, food programs, health care, stimulus checks, and housing programs, ensuring that individuals and families were able to afford basic necessities, even while providers were jobless due to increased unemployment or for health-related reasons. For example, the expanded unemployment insurance boosted benefits and eligibility to unemployed workers, ensuring that individuals and families had the means to withstand the worst of the pandemic even after losing their incomes. UI provided a substantial stimulus to the economy, counteracting the recession and giving consumers increased purchasing power to handle higher costs. Without the ARP in 2021 and the federal investments made through the FFCRA and CARES Act in 2020 and 2021, the United States would have been at risk of a second recession.31
Without the ARP in 2021 and the federal investments made through the FFCRA and CARES Act, the United States would have been at risk of a second recession.
Similarly, expanded food programs—especially the increased benefits of SNAP, TEFAP, and the P-EBT program—ensured that families continued to have access to increased food supports, particularly when schools went virtual. Furthermore, the expanded CTC reduced food insecurity during the worst of the pandemic,32 as its monthly benefit helped alleviate food insecurity for 25 percent of eligible households with children under the age of 18 and incomes below $35,000. More than 60 percent of households with children and making under $50,000 reported spending their CTC on food, while 56 percent of eligible households making less than $75,000 used the payment on food from July 2021 to September 2021.33 Clearly, the CTC went a long way to reduce food insecurity and child poverty for millions of families in just five months.34
To ease pressures on the existing supply chain, the Biden administration recently released an action plan to lower meat and poultry prices for consumers by increasing competition in the meat and poultry processing industry, thereby strengthening the food supply chain and creating jobs and economic opportunities in rural areas.35
Policy steps to alleviate food insecurity
Inflation will ease over time, but the temporary cushions in health, food, and financial security offered by the FFCRA, CARES Act, and ARP have already expired or are now expiring, which could have harmful implications for the food security of millions of families. The FFCRA, CARES Act, and ARP provided states with greater flexibility to increase SNAP benefits and eligibility and provide increased supports to unemployed workers, childless adults, students, and the elderly, among other vulnerable populations. However, if the federal government’s COVID-19 public health emergency declaration ends this summer, those temporary expansions will also expire, cutting people off from additional food assistance, especially for low-income households still facing economic precarity.36 For this reason, many federal and state policymakers, as well as hunger advocates, including the Center for American Progress, are calling for the extension of pandemic expansions to food and nutritional supports—especially to ensure food adequacy for children.37
Furthermore, Congress has a critical opportunity to modernize and strengthen food and nutrition programs and, in turn, to improve health outcomes for millions of Americans through two important upcoming reauthorizations: the Child Nutrition Act and the Farm Bill, which includes SNAP programs, among many others designed to improve food security in the United States and around the world. The former is up for reauthorization in 2022 and the latter in 2023. Building on lessons learned from this pandemic and its impact on food insecurity, policymakers should modernize SNAP benefits to better reflect today’s economic reality and emerging crisis.
For example, during times of high inflation or economic precarity, policymakers should consider increasing SNAP benefit amounts more frequently than once per year in order to help the most vulnerable populations meet their basic needs consistently. This can be done through what are called “automatic stabilizers,” which are features of government policy that counter recessionary forces by automatically increasing stimulus during economic downturns without need for any action from lawmakers.38 Additionally, increasing SNAP eligibility to make the benefit amounts more reflective of individual and family needs and removing burdensome requirements, such as recertification, could make the program a true safety net that catches and supports people when they need help.
In Congress, several key bills have been introduced that would help strengthen food security under SNAP. Policymakers who are serious about reducing food insecurity should consider supporting the following legislation:
- The Closing the Meal Gap Act (R. 4077/S.2192) would use the more sufficient Low-Cost Food Plan to calculate SNAP benefits, increase their baseline, and expand them to U.S. territories, providing nutritional equity to all Americans.39
- The Improving Access to Nutrition Act(R. 1753) would eliminate time limits on SNAP eligibility and ensure that all people have access to nutrition assistance while they look for full-time work. The bill would help people struggling with unemployment or underemployment by increasing access to food benefits and promoting racial and health equity.40
- The Enhanced Access to SNAP Act (R. 1919/S. 2515) would help low-income college students access SNAP benefits.41
- The Making Essentials Available and Lawful Act (R. 2837) would remove restrictions that prevent people with drug felony convictions from accessing SNAP benefits.42
- The ASSET Act ( 1809/H.R. 3822) would eliminate asset limits on SNAP recipients, increasing the number of eligible participants and allowing them to build financial security while accessing nutrition benefit.43
- The LIFT the BAR Act (R. 5227) would eliminate the five-year waiting period for SNAP benefits for qualified immigrants with sponsors. The bill would also restore flexibility to states and localities to provide benefits to immigrants through state and local funds.44
At the state level, several states are using their budgets—including funds that were disbursed as part of the ARP—to address immediate food security needs, which will need to be complemented by long-term efforts. In Maryland, for example, the legislature passed a bill in 2021 creating a food system resiliency council to address food insecurity stemming from the pandemic; develop policy recommendations anchored in equity and sustainability to increase the long-term resiliency of food systems; and draft a strategic plan to increase the production and procurement of state-grown food. The legislature requested funds for key immediate priorities, including emergency food distribution to meet increased need, enhanced food storage, and the distribution of food going to waste.45 Other state and local governments should follow suit, considering innovative strategies to bolster food security across their communities and transition from short-term triage to long-term solutions.
In a modern economy, and especially in the wealthiest country in the world, no one should struggle to put food on their table. As the ARP has demonstrated, real economic strength comes from centering investments on the people and communities who have historically been left behind during economic recoveries. In many ways, the ARP and other federal investments have helped mitigate the worst of the health and economic crises facing millions of people across the nation. However, as the economy is rebounding, now is not the time to scale back those supports for individuals and families still struggling to regain financial stability. Conservative policymakers are using the high cost of goods and services as a rationale to temper federal investments.46 Yet without interventions, the high cost of basic necessities will continue to affect the country’s economic recovery.
It is critical that policymakers not ignore the immense value of investing in programs that strengthen these safety nets for the lowest income households. Congress needs to apply the lessons learned from the ARP to an economic package that helps families meet their everyday needs and that grows the economy in an equitable and sustainable manner.
The authors would like to thank Lily Roberts, Christian Weller, Seth Hanlon, and Anona Neal for their guidance and support on this piece.