Two years ago, a gallon of milk averaged $3.74. Today, shoppers can expect to spend $4.21. A loaf of white bread that previously cost $1.53 is $1.87. A 3-pound whole chicken that cost about $4.82 now averages $5.49. And a dozen eggs cost upwards of $3 more (Federal Reserve Bank). Grocery food prices in the United States are up and will continue to grow gradually this year, with prices increasing by 8% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Agriculture). Rising food costs on staple items have meant that people experiencing food insecurity are left to choose what to buy and what meals to skip.
Climate change, crop and livestock diseases, gas prices, and supply chain issues have contributed to these higher costs, depleting available supplies. However, most inflation is from corporate profit margins (EPI, Forbes). Food companies were able to drive up prices by leveraging the pandemic and disruptions in the supply chain to justify passing their surge expenses onto consumers. As a result, they hit record profits, with 2021 being the “most profitable year for big corporations since 1950.” In 2021, Cargill Inc., which supplies food, agriculture, and other services globally, made $134 billion in revenue, netting $5 billion in profits even as the Russian invasion of Ukraine impacted the company’s grain supply. And despite avian flu culls, Tyson made more than $1 billion in the first quarter of 2022, which was 48% more than the previous year. During this period, the top 1% in the U.S. held more wealth than the middle class, which is 60% of U.S. households, for the first time in 30 years (Federal Reserve, Bloomberg). Meanwhile, 33.8 million people lacked consistent access to adequate food (USDA).
• Donate to local food banks and pantries like the Love Fridge and South Philly Community Fridge or start one in your neighborhood.
• Support programs and initiatives like Food Not Bombs and Food Rescue Hero Network that distribute surplus food to people who are food insecure.
Food insecurity is when a household or individual has limited or uncertain access to sufficient food, often due to a lack of money and other resources (USDA). It is “a household-level economic and social condition” that affects low-income people, rural communities, people of color, women, children, older adults, and disabled people. Food insecurity is substantially higher than the national average for single-parent families and Black and Latine households (USDA), and it is more prevalent in households with children. Ninety-five percent of food-insecure adults have to skip or cut the size of meals, and 87% reported this occurring in 3 or more months in the previous year (USDA).
Having to skip a meal, going a whole day without food, or not knowing when you will eat next has mental and physical effects, including depression in pregnant mothers, suicidal ideation in teens, and chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension in adults (Health Affairs).
Government assistance programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the largest U.S. federal food assistance program, exist to help low-income households access food. However, not all food-insecure individuals are eligible to receive SNAP benefits (NPR). Those that do often have limited grocery store options that accept these benefits or live in “food deserts,” further limiting their access to affordable food (The ARD). Additionally, SNAP benefits don’t always provide enough, leaving some households to run out weeks until the next payment. More than seven million households were food insecure despite receiving federal food and nutrition benefits (American Progress).
Not to mention, all this is occurring as inflation affects food, rent, transportation, and other everyday necessities. Unsurprisingly, as food prices rose, so did food insecurity (Urban). Despite low unemployment rates in the summer of 2022, food insecurity was at the same levels as it was in March and April 2020, when unemployment was 14.7%, the “highest since the Great Depression” (CNBC). But in 2020, safety net programs like SNAP’s emergency allotments and Child Nutrition COVID-19 Waivers for school meals were expanded to help buffer the effects of the pandemic. Such programs are about to or have expired already, leaving those who depended on these expansions with no alternatives.
In the face of growing hunger and food insecurity, community efforts like local food pantries and fridges have stepped up to fill the hole left by insufficient state and federal programs. These community services, like Love Fridge in Chicago and South Philly Community Fridge, are a lifeline for those in need of free readymade meals or food.
The pandemic exposed and exacerbated existing economic inequalities in one of the wealthiest nations, with hunger and insufficient food access at the forefront of issues in dire need of addressing. It showed how disinterested politicians were in easing the burden of food insecurity, even temporarily, for families, especially those with children. But also how the ultra rich are making money off the desperation of everyday people trying to survive.
• Food companies and their shareholders have made record profits during the pandemic.
• Rising food costs come at the expense of low-income households.
• With the loss of pandemic-era relief programs, food-insecure people have little to no buffer against high food price inflation.