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How does inflation affect food-insecure families and food banks?

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Person at an outdoor food bank.

The pandemic exacerbated food insecurity, and inflation makes it harder for food banks to provide for families' needs. Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

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Food prices are rising, and families can’t keep up. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the food at home price index rose by 10% over the prior 12 months, the largest increase since March 1981.

Making matters worse, many states are ending the emergency benefits put in place during the pandemic. This rapid increase in grocery prices is driving many food-insecure families to turn to food banks. 

But the pain of inflation is reaching the outlets themselves. Around 85% of Feeding America’s food bank network reported that demand for food assistance rose or stayed the same in February compared to the previous month. Within the past six months, 55% of Feeding America food banks reported a decrease in food donations.

Feeding America CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot said in a news release, “In the coming months and years, we are facing a historically unprecedented set of simultaneous challenges and we need to strengthen our commitment and resolve to support our neighbors’ ability not just to survive, but to thrive.”

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke to Babineaux-Fontenot about how inflation affects marginalized families and food banks and how the nation should deal with food insecurity. 

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: OK. So, I say “inflation,” and you, as a woman running Feeding America, say what?

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: Pain.

Ryssdal: Yeah. Give me some for instances because, you know, food demand is up, the cost of providing it is up. I don’t quite understand it how your member food banks are getting by.

Babineaux-Fontenot: I don’t know how they’re getting by either Kai, honestly. It’s been increasingly difficult, especially of late. So just like inflation is impacting the average person going to the grocery store, it’s impacting our members too. Donations are down. So we’re out there buying more food when grocery prices are as high as they’ve been, I think, since I was in the 11th grade. That’s 1981. We have a whole fleet of trucks that are out there making sure that food gets from where it is to the people who need it the most, and that costs more and more money. In our most recent survey that we did of our members, 95% of our members are saying that they are at a higher demand this month than last. I mean, I’m an optimist by nature, Kai, but my sincere answer to your question was “pain.” And maybe now your audience knows why.

Ryssdal: So look, about the bigger picture. Last time we had you on, I asked you if you thought solving food insecurity was a matter of political will. And you said it was a matter of awareness. So the White House and the [Joe] Biden administration, they’re gonna have a conference come September on food insecurity in the United States. And so, you know, you don’t get much more visibility and awareness than the president of the United States showing up at a conference in the East Room or whatever. But how do you suppose it’s possible the broader public is not aware? I mean, if donations are down and demand is up, it’s, it’s an accelerating problem.

Babineaux-Fontenot: It is, and I’m glad you mentioned the White House conference because I do think it represents a unique opportunity for us to actually do something about this. It starts with people being aware that it’s a problem. So that was the awareness issue. And then the second important step, Kai, is people have to decide it’s unacceptable. And when those two things happen, I bet on the American public and our ability to solve big, hairy problems like this one. It should be a 100% issue, it should be completely nonpartisan. We should decide that we’re going to put our intellectual firepower behind this, our innovative spirit behind this, and we’re going to go make some things happen this time.

Ryssdal: Let me take you back to where we started, the idea of inflation in this economy right now. Much as inflation hurts the most vulnerable in this society, right? The lowest-income, the minorities, the neglected. So, too, I imagine food insecurity affects them the worst. How do we make sure that those Americans get the food support they need, and not just, as you alluded to before, not just, you know, food in their bellies, but healthy, quality food that’s going to help them thrive?

Babineaux-Fontenot: Feeding America articulated a bold goal for the country that by the end of this decade, that we would take food insecurity weights, which are now somewhere hovering around 10%, we’d cut it in half by the end of the decade. But I do think that it matters how we get there. Also, your race influences whether or not you’re going to be food insecure. And where you live influences whether or not you’re going to be food insecure. If you’re African American, you went into the, this pandemic at about 2.75 times more likely to be food insecure, which certainly is a terrible, terrible number. But you’re coming out of it 3.2 times more likely to be food insecure. So we should be doubling down in those places where people are inordinately struggling. And that’s what we’re going to be doing at Feeding America. We’re making inordinate investments in the places where people are struggling inordinately, if you will. Yeah, that’s the whole nature of the work.

Ryssdal: What is your level of concern? Just as a way to wrap things up here. What is your level of concern that, as America, most of America, emerges from the worst of the pandemic and who knows what the next wave is? But clearly this country is done with having to deal with the pandemic. How much do you worry that the country will move on, but the problems of inflation and demand and inequity in the food supply will fall by the wayside? I mean, when we had you on the first time back in the beginning of the pandemic, there was really high awareness, I think, really high visibility, and I wonder now if it’s, if it’s sort of fallen off.

Babineaux-Fontenot: It is falling off, Kai, and I don’t know if you remember, but in that very first meeting that we had, my concern was that the lines on the outside of buildings, that they would go away, and that people would assume that means everything’s OK. Well, even before the pandemic, you had nearly 40 million people were food insecure in this country. I’m optimistic that we are going to crack the code on this, but I know that it’s not going to be easy, but I’m willing to stick with it, and I hope the American public will stick with it too.

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