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Higher food costs make the math even harder for Americans on food stamps

While many people who receive SNAP benefits are in the workforce, they still don’t earn enough to buy healthy food — and some don't even have enough cash on hand "to get past a day or two.”
Image: Vegetables
With prices for gas and groceries soaring as inflation hits decades-high levels, people who receive SNAP benefits are once again caught in a crunch.Denise Taylor / Getty Images

Food security advocates breathed a sigh of relief earlier this year when a historic adjustment by the USDA boosted the payments dispersed to low-income Americans who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, only to see those benefits eroded by rising inflation.

People who work towards hunger prevention say that safeguards such as enhanced SNAP benefits and expanded unemployment insurance, direct payments to millions and child tax credit increases helped shield families from the most dire outcomes of pandemic-triggered financial fallout. But now, prices for gas and groceries are soaring as inflation hits decades-high levels, and there are warnings that people could find themselves paying as much as 54 percent more to heat their homes this winter. People who receive SNAP benefits are once again caught in a crunch.

“Low-income people, because they have less slack in their budgets, are more harmed by inflation,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research. “It does squeeze food budgets, and we do know that a lot of low-income families face that.”

Many of the people who receive SNAP benefits are in the workforce, but they still don’t earn enough to buy healthy food, said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the nonprofit Food Resource and Action Center. “What we’ve seen over the years is that SNAP is a significant portion of the budget for many of them, but typically it’s not enough for them to get through the month,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why demand is so high at food banks.” 

Jessica Francis, executive director of the Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf in the St. Paul suburb of Oakdale, Minn., said that many people her organization serves are still rebuilding their finances after losing income during the pandemic. “So many families are still recovering. They might have gotten their job back, but they’re still in a deep hole,” she said. “Now they’re just paying higher prices at the gas pump and at the grocery store for basic needs. We’re hearing from so many people now who are very nervous,” she said, especially with winter on the way. 

So many families are still recovering. They might have gotten their job back, but they’re still in a deep hole.

“It just seems like two steps forward, one step back,” said Barbara Littlefield, an Oakdale resident and delivery person for Instacart who enrolled in SNAP because she struggles to make ends meet after a series of health crises limited her ability to work.

Littlefield, 45, said she has already cut items like pot roast and avocados out of her diet that have become unaffordable, but she sometimes still has to visit the Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf to tide her over because she has found that her benefits don’t stretch as far. “With our job it’s all contract work. I used up all the reserves I had,” she said. 

SNAP benefits are adjusted for inflation annually, but the cost of many groceries, especially protein and produce, has shot up so far in such a short period of time that an annual adjustment doesn’t reflect the reality of today’s price increases. 

Schanzenbach suggested that policymakers could consider a more frequent or accelerated adjustment timetable to reflect today’s economic reality. “Especially in times of high inflation, could we make that feedback loop more quick?,” she said. “If we could adjust SNAP benefits for inflation more quickly, that would help.”

“The question is really what’s going to happen in the interim between now and the next annual inflation adjustment,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. “What’s happening now in core goods is what’s driving inflation, but it’s also affecting food in unusual ways,” she said, since low-margin businesses like supermarkets may have less bargaining power when it comes to negotiating with vendors and transportation providers for scarce truck capacity. 

“Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the supply chain problems,” said Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research and Action Center. 

Henchy noted that people who live in food deserts — that is, without easy access to a store where they can buy fresh food — tended to pay higher prices for groceries even prior to the pandemic. “Now, with the supply chain disruptions and resulting inflation, they’re paying even more for less,” Henchy said. 

The small neighborhood shops, corner stores and bodegas that are a staple source for food in these neighborhoods don’t have the purchasing power of big supermarket chains to negotiate on pricing or transportation, and their smaller footprints make buying large amounts to achieve economies of scale impossible. 

“They don’t have the draw, they don’t have the power within the supply chain to demand better prices or be the first people to get deliveries,” Henchy said.

Cleveland-area resident Latasha Lyle said she tries to make the idea of a vegetarian meal sound like an exciting culinary adventure for her six kids. The reality, she said, is that she can’t afford to buy meat. 

“Unfortunately, I’m a single mom,” Lyle, 34, said. “When I picked up a pack of chicken wings, it said $21… For 12 pieces, that’s not a lot to feed myself and six kids.” Even with SNAP benefits, she said lately that she has sought assistance from food banks. “I don’t have food now as we speak,” she said. 

For Lyle, who doesn’t have a car and lives in the suburbs, just getting to the supermarket is a challenge, and incurs its own costs. 

For suburban residents without a car, just getting to the supermarket is a challenge, and incurs its own costs. 

“The cost of transportation… just makes access to getting healthy food more and more difficult,” said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota. “Just when people were getting back on their feet, it’s more difficult for people to have lasting access to food.”

In a pandemic, this creates some unique vulnerabilities, Moriarty said. People may carpool with friends or neighbors of uncertain vaccination status, and low-income parents and seniors often skimp on protein and load up on carbohydrates when their funds run out before the end of the month, putting their health at risk.  

“The access to protein is what we’ve been hearing is the greatest loss,” she said. “Plus, we’re in the middle of this huge surge in Covid right now, so people’s ability to go out and secure food is more difficult.”

”When the prices are going up like this, people try to cope. They’ll try to buy more cheap filling food for the family like pasta or bread or crackers or ramen,” Henchy said.  

Today’s transportation and supply chain logjam is just one facet of what hunger experts say is a much larger crisis: As the cost of gas, clothing, heat and other necessities continues to climb, low-income Americans are facing extraordinary budget pressure from all sides. 

“We do know they’re feeling a pinch on utilities, they’ve been feeling a pinch on rent… Housing is a cost they can’t really cut back on. Food is something that sometimes families will decide they can make do without,” Vollinger said, which too often means that parents skip meals so that their kids don’t go hungry. 

A recent survey of SNAP recipients exemplified just how close many of these families are to the financial brink, she said. “Over half don’t think they have enough cash on hand to get past a day or two.”