Record-high grocery prices exacerbate America’s growing food insecurity problems

A lot of America is going hungry.

The coronavirus pandemic has set off a domino effect in the country’s food supply chain that is hurting food banks and pantries in the nation’s largest cities and the millions of newly unemployed Americans who now depend on them.

The latest sign of the food disruption: Grocery prices spiked by the largest amount in nearly 50 years last month because of the shutdown of infected food facilities and higher costs of freight.

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“Just about everyone is looking for assistance because the pandemic has hit every kind of person,” said Paula Murphy, a spokesperson for the Houston Food Bank. “We’re serving the clients we served pre-pandemic and we’re serving the clients who never thought they would need to visit a food bank.” 

Volunteers from the Charity Begins At Home non-profit group hand out food parcels at a 'mobile food bank' in Trafalgar Square in London, England, on May 15, 2020. (Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In 2018, 22.2% of U.S. households, or 28.6 million, fell on the food insecurity spectrum at some time, according to the USDA. Nearly the same percentage — 1 in 5 workers — reported that in the last month alone they or their immediate family have gone without food for 24 hours due to a lack of money, according to a recent survey of 1,500 people from Jobvite.

A surge of Americans are also applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal program formerly known as food stamps, according to an earlier Yahoo Money report, while swelling numbers are seeking assistance at food banks and pantries with the country’s four largest cities all reporting an increase in demand. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Chef Jose Andres talk food security at a Yahoo News Town Hall.

Nearly half of New York City’s network of soup kitchens and food pantries have reported an increase in visitors over the past few weeks, and are modifying their services to accommodate the most vulnerable such as providing more home deliveries.

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The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank has seen an 80% increase in demand and served over 1 million people since the pandemic’s arrival. Pre-COVID, the food bank served 300,000 people monthly and now that number is estimated to be at 500,000. 

The Greater Chicago Food Depository reports a 71% increase in clients since January, but Greg Trotter, a spokesperson for the nonprofit says that percentage is likely higher due to issues with reporting. 

Supplies at the Houston Food Bank. (Photo from Houston Food Bank)

Houston, home to 1.1 million food insecure people, reported a similar increase. Pre-COVID, Houston Food Bank, which serves the broader southeast Texas region, distributed 400,000 to 500,000 pounds of food per day. Recently, that number is over 1 million pounds per day across 112,000 households with a 150% increase in demand.

Compounding the problem is dwindling supplies.

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Food banks not only buy their own goods — now at vastly higher prices — but they also rely on donations from grocery stores for items that are nearing purchase-by dates or slightly imperfect goods. But those products are no longer available because they’re being sold to throngs of shoppers stocking up. 

Food banks are also short-staffed. Unlike in previous times of crisis, in-person volunteers are not best suited to aid in the response effort. Not every pantry is equipped to handle additional volunteers now while assuring all hands maintain a safe distance. 

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Trotter mentioned that donating money “is the most helpful thing” that concerned citizens can do, if they can. The Greater Chicago Food Depository is projected to use over 40% of its operating budget by the end of June. 

“Our response is just so significant and it's costly, and there's no real end in sight,” Trotter said. “It's just important for people to understand that this is a long haul situation.”

Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Money and Cashay, a new personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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