At the onset of the pandemic, as tens of millions of Americans found themselves suddenly out of work and food bank lines stretched for miles, Congress passed lifeline legislation to keep people in distress fed. The emergency spending injected billions of extra dollars into food assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
A year later, President Biden boosted those expanded benefits to ensure they went to the lowest-income participating households. Thanks in part to that aid and other assistance programs launched or expanded during the Covid-19 pandemic, food insecurity avoided the sharp increase that occurred during the Great Recession.
But at the end of this past month, the pandemic-era expanded SNAP benefits expired for more than 30 million people in 35 states and territories, slashing the average participant’s monthly food assistance from around $251 to $169, with some groups suffering much steeper benefit cuts. Food banks are once again bracing for a surge in need, with one in Kentucky reporting a mile-long line days after the cuts. Advocates fear that the loss of the extended benefits — which were killed by a congressional deal made in December to keep the government running — could send millions of additional Americans off the “hunger cliff.”
And while Biden’s proposed spending budget announced earlier this month includes funding for breakfast and lunch in low-income school districts and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, the budget has zero chance of passing the Republican-controlled House intact. Indeed, the House GOP has its sights set on restricting SNAP access and reducing its benefits, having introduced a work requirement bill on March 14 with more bills to come, per Politico.
It should shock the American conscience that in the wealthiest and one of the most agriculturally productive countries — awash in cheap food, no less — one in 10 households still live with food insecurity, a grim reality with which we’ve become startlingly comfortable. But hunger, as we learned during the pandemic and in its aftermath, is a policy choice.
Defining hunger in America
In the 2021 fiscal year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) spent $182.5 billion across its 15 food assistance programs, the vast majority on SNAP — virtually double what it spent before the pandemic in 2019. On top of programs like SNAP, the agency also supports part of the sprawling network of some 400 food banks nationwide — where donated food is stored — along with more than 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens where that food is distributed.
Despite its enormity — and despite the fact that hunger has always been a problem in the land of plenty — this network of food assistance is relatively new. St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, Arizona, the US’s first real food bank, opened its doors in 1967, and while the food stamp program has its origins in the late 1930s, it didn’t start to resemble its current form of SNAP until the 1960s and ’70s.
The government wasn’t comprehensively measuring hunger at the time, and there wasn’t even consensus on how to define it, but that all began to change in the late 1980s. An expert panel of nutritionists, working with the US Department of Health and Human Services, straightforwardly defined hunger as the discomfort and pain brought on by lack of food. They also defined “food insecurity,” a much more important metric in understanding hunger in America — a country in which prolonged hunger is rare but the more nuanced and temporal state of food insecurity isn’t. And that state is defined as occurring whenever there is “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited and uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
In 1995, the US Census Bureau and the USDA began to extensively measure food security with an 18-question survey about households’ food intake and access over the prior 12 months, and in 2006 began to place households on a continuum based on their answers. It ranges from high food security — meaning zero problems or anxiety about consistent food access throughout the year — to very low food security, meaning that during some points of the year, one or more members of the household reduced their portions or skipped meals because of a lack of money.
The survey isn’t perfect — it relies on self-reported data over 12 months, so there’s a lag and a level of uncertainty — but it gives anti-hunger advocates and policymakers a broad understanding of food insecurity in America. And early on in the pandemic, the Census Bureau launched the regular Household Pulse Survey, which includes questions on “food insufficiency” — meaning sometimes or often not having enough to eat — which gave somewhat more real-time data on food access.
The main findings from food insecurity surveys? The groups most likely to experience food insecurity are people who live below the poverty line, Black and Hispanic households, single parents, and households that include an adult with a disability.
Rural Americans experience food insecurity at higher rates than those in cities, and food security can vary widely by state. For example, 15.3 percent of Mississippi households experience food insecurity, while only 5.4 percent of New Hampshire households do (food insecurity is highest in the South).
“When we talk about food insecurity numbers, we’re talking about people who are concerned — really facing a constant struggle — with whether or not they can afford sufficient food for themselves and their families,” said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director for the Food Research & Action Center, an organization that advocates for stronger food assistance policy.
For some, that concern can wax and wane with one’s financial standing, said Priya Fielding-Singh, a sociologist and assistant professor at the University of Utah who closely followed food insecure families for her book How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America. During some periods in a year, a parent might be able to take on more shifts at work and feel more confident about their ability to pay for groceries, but emergencies — like car accidents or broken appliances or a sudden pandemic — can quickly plunge them back into food insecurity.
“Those kinds of acute crises often precipitate food insecurity, where you have to spend the money that you were going to be devoting toward your food toward something else,” Fielding-Singh said.
And surveys can’t tell us about the psychological burden of food insecurity, she added: “Feeling like you don’t know if you have enough money to pay for your groceries over the course of a month, or you don’t know if you’re going to be paid on time in order to pack your kid’s lunch … I think that living with that kind of underlying uncertainty is really psychologically damaging.”
Food insecurity rates hovered around 10 to 12 percent of households from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, peaking in 2011 at 14.9 percent in the wake of the Great Recession and falling back down to pre-recession levels by 2017. Thanks to the slate of food assistance programs over the course of the pandemic, they didn’t climb back up.
However, the forecast ahead for food insecurity is murky. As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, workers are benefiting from strong wage growth, low unemployment, minimum wage hikes, and slowing inflation, each of which will affect how much people can spend on food. But for many low-income households, their future will also depend on the future of SNAP and other food assistance programs, which are under threat from a brewing war in Congress.
Hunger is a policy choice
That it’s obvious doesn’t make it any less true: The most effective way to reduce food insecurity is to reduce poverty, the ebbs and flows of which practically mirror food insecurity rates. According to the USDA, the average consumer spends 10.3 percent of their disposable income on food, but for the lowest-income households, it’s a staggering 30.6 percent, and around 15 percent for the second-lowest bracket.
While the long-term war on poverty is waged, there are some shorter-term battles to be fought as well.
The Food Research & Action Center has a long wish list for the Biden administration and Congress to strengthen federal food assistance, from big-ticket items like increasing benefits to expanding SNAP access for low-income college students.
Simply increasing enrollment could go a long way. SNAP participation among eligible people is relatively high (82 percent), but that’s not the case for WIC: In 2019, enrollment was at just 57 percent due to a variety of factors, including confusion around eligibility and restrictions on what can be purchased. And until 2020, WIC benefits were still issued on paper vouchers in many states, instead of a debit card, which increased stigma (SNAP has been issued via debit cards since 2004).
One of the most significant achievements would be a return to universal free school lunch, a pandemic-era policy that lapsed late last year. “If a child is hungry, that is all they think about all day,” a director of food and nutrition at a Connecticut public school district told Vox’s Anna North. “If we don’t prioritize hungry children, I don’t know what we prioritize. I don’t know what else is more important than that.”
Universal free school lunch wouldn’t just reduce food insecurity but could also help improve childhood education: After New York City launched universal free school lunch in 2017, students’ math and reading test scores improved.
If Congress doesn’t move on the issue, the burden will fall to the states. Some states, like Massachusetts and Nevada, extended universal free school lunch to the end of the 2023 school year, while California and Maine went further, making universal free school lunch and breakfast permanent, which went into effect at the start of this current school year (New Mexico’s governor is expected to sign similar legislation into law soon). Most Colorado public school students will receive free school lunch and breakfast next school year, and other states are mulling free breakfast and lunch programs, too.
“That is a really exciting trend,” said Fielding-Singh. “And before the pandemic, that was completely politically unfeasible.”
But the massive, pandemic-era expansion of the welfare state has shrunk significantly over the last year as the immediate threat of Covid-19 has receded. The House, now under GOP control, has called to reduce SNAP benefits for adults without children, and Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD) introduced legislation on Tuesday that raises the maximum age for work requirements from 49 to 65, changes that would all but guarantee an uptick in child and adult food insecurity.
It’s the first shot fired in what could be an ugly fight over adjustments to SNAP in negotiations for this year’s Farm Bill, which is rewritten every five years (SNAP accounts for nearly 80 percent of the bill’s spending).
That frustrates advocates like Vollinger, who points to strong support for food assistance programs, even among conservatives. “It’s not as if this is an issue where we don’t know what to do,” Vollinger said. “There are strategies that are pretty clear and workable and doable, if there’s the political will to do them.”