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Even as inflation wanes, Americans face a looming food insecurity problem

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General inflation is starting to ease, but food insecurity for American consumers is not. And while the easing of inflation could make it into President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night, food advocates and experts say it’s the issue of rising food insecurity that should enter the limelight.

More Americans who use food stamps reported skipping meals, eating less and going to food banks to manage costs in the first month of 2023, according to the latest monthly survey by Provider, an app for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program users by Propel. 

In the past month, 29.21% of the survey’s 4,184 participants said they have skipped meals. That’s a 3 percentage-point increase compared to the month before. One-fifth said they rely on family and friends to sustain themselves, up 9 percentage points from December. A bit less than a third (32.41%) reported they’ve eaten less to manage food costs, up 2 percentage points. Close to a quarter (23.55%) said they have visited a food bank in the past month, up from 21% a month earlier. 

Tuesday night, Biden will make the economy the centerpiece of his State of the Union address. A few challenges will be on the table, including the looming concerns for economic uncertainties, the debt ceiling and the war in Ukraine. But experts said it’s also a crucial time to be talking about food assistance. 

As the economy slowly opens up, some subsidy programs are coming to an end. While expanded child tax credits ended last summer, an expanded allotment of SNAP benefits formerly tied to the public health emergency will be ending by Feb. 28. More than 15 states have already ended the emergency allotment, including Alaska, North Dakota and Tennessee. 

In the past year, the rise in the cost of living reached a 40-year high, with inflation nearing 9% in June. By December, the inflation rate had fallen to an annual 6.5% from the 7.1% recorded in November. But food inflation was 10.4% higher in December compared to the previous year. 

The high prices put an extra squeeze on American wallets, experts said.

“As the COVID pandemic has been shifting into a different phase, I don’t think anyone accounted for the fact that we would have such high food-price inflation over the last year and a half,” said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Income Benefits Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank.  

“While a public health emergency may seem not germane anymore, the food prices challenge is still with us,” she added.

At the moment, emergency allotments allow all SNAP recipients to receive an additional $95, or up to the maximum benefit for their household size, whichever value is greater, according to the Department of Agriculture website. When the allotment comes to an end, it could mean a recipient’s grocery budget will drop from $281 to $23 for a person receiving the minimum level, pre-pandemic. 

“We are deeply concerned about the impact that the end of SNAP Emergency Allotment will have on millions of families that needed this critical lifeline for the past three years,” Jerome Nathaniel, City Harvest’s director of policy and government relations, said in an email to MarketWatch. 

Losing the cash support, combined with a year of high food prices, has pushed up the food-insecurity level nationwide, said Gina Plata-Nino, deputy director for SNAP at the Food Research & Action Center, a Washington-based nonprofit focusing on food security and nutrition for low-income households.  

“We’re back to where we started at the height of the pandemic around December 2020,” Plata-Nino said.


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