Editor’s Note: Priya Fielding-Singh, PhD, is an assistant professor of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah and the author of the new book, How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America. Ilana Raskind, PhD, is a research scientist at the Center for Health Outcomes and Population Equity at Huntsman Cancer Institute, University of Utah. The views expressed here are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.
With inflation at a 30-year high, Americans are about to face a holiday season marked by surging food prices.
Thanksgiving is predicted to be the most expensive in history, as pandemic-induced supply chain issues and labor shortages help drive the cost of many foods – turkeys included – higher and higher.
These surges impact grocery expenses for everyone, but they disproportionately harm low-income, Black and brown families. If left unaddressed, escalating food costs will not only make it difficult for these families to put holiday meals on the table; such costs will significantly exacerbate longstanding inequities in hunger and nutrition.
The pandemic didn’t create these inequities. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, 1 in every 10 US households experienced food insecurity, or unreliable access to enough nutritious food. This was already a striking and shamefully high rate among wealthy, developed nations. But food insecurity rates have long been even higher for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous American households, single parents (especially mothers) and families with children.
Over the past two years, we’ve only seen these gaps widen. Pandemic relief efforts helped prevent American hunger rates overall from exploding, but they failed to address deeply rooted inequities. While hunger in White households decreased from 2019 to 2020, according to research from the US Department of Agriculture, it increased in Black households and those with children, and it stayed the same among Latinx households. Compared to White households, Latinx and Black households now experience roughly double and triple the rates of food insecurity.
As we enter the holiday season facing double-digit increases in supermarket costs, hunger-relief organizations and food banks are working tirelessly to ensure families have enough to eat.
But these food charity efforts are painfully limited in what they can accomplish. America’s hunger problem is too big and its inequities too wide for any number of individual food donations to solve. Only swift and sweeping government action can do that. Such action must effectively reduce hunger rates overall – bringing them far below the 1 in 10 figure we’ve come to accept as “normal” – while simultaneously tackling enduring inequities in who experiences hunger in the first place.
Accomplishing both goals will require pairing the reform of anti-hunger policies that directly impact food access with bolstered social policies that tackle food insecurity’s root causes. Core to this agenda must be acknowledging that food banks will never singlehandedly solve hunger. Rather, the government must dismantle hunger by making permanent changes to food assistance legislation and broader social policies. These changes include – among others – instituting food assistance benefit increases that keep pace with rising costs of living, removing discriminatory flaws that systematically exclude racial/ethnic minorities from accessing safety net benefits, expanding childcare assistance and child tax credits and providing regular cash aid to families.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – America’s premier federal food assistance program – has the power to tackle hunger across the board, but only if its monthly benefits are increased and its barriers to entry are lowered.
The government’s recent – and long overdue – permanent 27% increase in SNAP benefits must be just the beginning. Currently, 80% of families’ SNAP benefits are spent within the first half of each month, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to hunger in the second half. Now, with the price of foods like meat and eggs up as much as 15%, more substantial increases to SNAP are essential to cover families’ monthly food costs.
Moreover, income requirements for food assistance programs like SNAP are stringent and out of touch with modern living costs. In our state of Utah, a family of four must make less than $34,000 a year to be SNAP-eligible. Meanwhile, the Economic Policy Institute estimates such a family living in Salt Lake County needs an annual income more than double that for an adequate standard of living.
Any increase in food assistance benefit amounts must be made in tandem with systematic removal of obstacles that box families out of accessing these benefits in the first place. The pandemic revealed such removals are possible: the government waived in-person SNAP interviews, and SNAP dollars could be spent on online grocery orders, saving families time and transportation costs, while also allowing them to minimize potential Covid exposure. These actions allowed the program to respond to economic hardship and expand from 38 million people in 2019 to 42 million in 2021.
Expanding access to benefits will only reduce inequities if paired with efforts to remove discriminatory policy flaws that have excluded Black, Latinx and Indigenous American households.
For instance, research shows stringent SNAP work requirements disproportionately exclude Black and Latinx adults from SNAP access. Similarly, widespread restrictions on SNAP benefits for people convicted of drug-related felonies disproportionately harm the same Black and Latinx communities long targeted by the War on Drugs. These discriminatory policies have no place in anti-hunger policy.
Improvements to the anti-hunger safety net must be matched with a strengthening of broader social policies to uproot hunger’s structural foundations. At its root, food insecurity stems from unlivable wages, unaffordable housing, childcare shortages and the many ways these inequities intersect with structural racism, poverty, and discrimination.
For instance, longstanding wealth disparities and labor market inequalities impact families’ abilities to feed themselves in the face of economic shocks. Black, Latinx and indigenous families entered the pandemic with far fewer resources than White families (the typical White family has roughly eight times the wealth of the typical Black family). Similarly, Black and Latinx workers, overrepresented in low-wage positions and the hardest-hit industries, suffered greater financial losses during the pandemic. A higher level of economic hardship and limited savings to fall back on made it harder for Black and Latinx families to maintain adequate access to food during the pandemic.
Now, as the holiday season approaches and food prices continue to rise, so too does the urgency of addressing hunger’s root causes. Fortunately, the pandemic has shown us swift and robust government action to tackle hunger is possible. But such action cannot be reserved only for moments of acute crisis.