Covid-19 pandemic is the first time 40% of Americans have experienced food insecurity

Monica Wahlberg has been submitting unemployment claims for the last 14 weeks, but she hasn't seen a cent yet. 

After losing her dream job as the director of a Madison, Wisconsin, community arts center in June, Wahlberg was able to carry on for a while without unemployment benefits, thanks to a severance package and her savings. Wahlberg, 45, held out hope that she would be able to find another job in her field, especially since she was asked to do phone and video interviews for a range of potential employers. 

But just getting by became more and more challenging as the months dragged on and her pantry supplies dried up along with her savings. After her church sponsored a pop-up food pantry over the summer, her pastor finally asked if she needed some of the leftover supplies. "I appreciated that. I realized I hadn't had any of these canned goods for a while," Wahlberg says. 

Wahlberg isn't alone. About 4 in 10 Americans report that they experienced food insecurity for the first time during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new poll of 2,000 U.S. adults released Tuesday by Two Good Yogurt and conducted by market research company OnePoll.

About half of those polled say they've struggled to afford food, while 37% report skipping meals themselves so there was enough food for their children to eat. Yet 63% said they didn't realize they were experiencing food insecurity, which is generally defined as when an individual doesn't have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable food.

The majority of Americans experiencing food insecurity, about 60%, say the expiration of many federal assistance programs, such as enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus payments, has made it even more difficult. About half report that they're struggling to provide food for their families more now than they were at the beginning of the pandemic.

Demand hasn't stopped

Food insecurity didn't start with the pandemic, but the crisis did exacerbate existing problems. 

Prior to the start of the pandemic in March, about 35 million Americans — including approximately 11 million children — lived in households that were food insecure, according to Feeding America, a leading national nonprofit food bank network. That was the lowest food insecurity rate the U.S. had seen in 20 years. 

If the unemployment rate averages 10.5% this year and the poverty rate comes in above 14%, which Feeding America expects the U.S. to hit, more than 50 million people will experience food insecurity, including about 17 million children, the organization estimates. The U.S. unemployment rate rose to a record high of 14.7% in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) are helping, but food banks and pantries are picking up a lot of the slack. Food banks have been experiencing ballooning demand for months now, which may not be sustainable long-term.

"The problem hasn't gone away," says Laura Lester, director of the Alabama Food Bank Association. "The initial crushing blow of everything has eased up a little, but not as much as you would think." 

The high level of demand comes at a cost, Lester says. Her network of food banks has started discussing the "inevitable food cliff." When that happens, food banks may need to limit their services.

That's because food banks are generally responsible for sourcing, storing and delivering supplies to local food pantries. Typically, they'd rely on donated food to supply the majority of their provisions, but that's not enough to keep up now. As a result, food banks are buying more food than ever before to meet the demand.

New York-based City Harvest spent about $10 million on food purchases from March through November. That's up nearly 50 times the $208,000 the organization typically spends in a normal fiscal year.

City Harvest expects that number to continue to rise, says CEO Jilly Stephens. The organization predicts that demand will rise dramatically in January since more federal programs are set to expire at the end of the year, including the Farmers to Families Food Boxes and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

"We don't see the numbers diminishing," Stephens says, especially as things get harder. "When the days get colder and shorter, people need that food."

Plus, it can take people a while to turn to emergency food. Like Wahlberg, there may be many Americans who are struggling right now, but haven't yet turned to food assistance programs or pantries because they're first maxing out their credit cards or spending down their savings.

"Many people will exhaust all sorts of resources before they go and stand in line for food," Stephens says. 

Getting the help you need

Yet perhaps more troubling than food banks' expected shortages is the fact that many people who are grappling with hunger don't know how to get the assistance they need. Nearly 4 out of 5 survey respondents say they struggled to find the support they needed.

Wahlberg was no different. Although she accepted the leftovers from her church's pop-up food pantry, she didn't start to regularly use food pantries until a few months later.

Through a local program focused on workers displaced by the pandemic, Wahlberg received a six-week, part-time job making $15 an hour at Madison-based The River Food Pantry. It was only after she joined The River that she started to regularly make use of their food assistance services.

Initially, though, she'd help didn't grab anything for herself, even though she was struggling. "They asked me, have you picked up food? And I was like, 'No, but I'd like to,'" Wahlberg says. When she did, Wahlberg says there was no judgement or issues. 

"There is a stigma of, 'I volunteer and I donate — I don't use these services.' But that really needs to be broken down," Wahlberg says. Working at a food pantry and being a client is what's keeping her afloat right now.

"If I had to spend my own money on food, then that's money I have to cut from my heating bill or my Internet or my telephone," she says. While phone service and Internet may seem like luxuries, she needs those things to apply for jobs, she says.

Although her six weeks with the job placement program recently expired, Wahlberg says the pantry decided to keep her on through the end of the year working 10 hours a week. "I still don't have a [full-time] job and I'm literally living off of my paycheck from The River," Wahlberg says. 

But she's quick to point out that she's fortunate to have that paycheck, as well as support from family and friends who have been able to help her out this year. From a board member for her condo association who used their stimulus check to pay Wahlberg's dues for a few months to friends who send her checks in the mail every once in a while, she's able to get by. 

"I'm doing OK, but it's through the grace of God and the generosity of my network," she says.

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Check out: 

  • ‘My kids are starving’: Food banks and pantries see explosive demand in North Carolina as pandemic continues
  • 1 in 10 Americans are struggling to afford enough food amid the pandemic

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