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Rising Food Prices Means Rising Need for Aid

June 18, 2020 at 10:45 AM

People are paying higher prices for groceries during the pandemic, including a nearly 50-year record rise in April, jeopardizing the food security of millions of households already reeling from job and income losses. The additional boost to SNAP benefits in the House-passed Heroes Act would help to address this issue as well as provide needed economic stimulus.

Due to factors such as supply disruptions, supermarket and grocery store food prices were 4.8 percent higher in May 2020 than in May of last year, compared to just a 0.1 percent rise in overall prices over the same period. Prices for all six major grocery store food groups rose over the last 12 months.

Many families were already struggling to pay their rent and put food on the table, and the current crisis has only exacerbated these problems. Food insecurity has roughly doubled from 2018 levels, with 23 percent of households reporting in April that the food they bought didn’t last through the month and they didn’t have enough money to get more. Such food insecurity is far more common among people of color, affecting, for example, 29 and 34 percent of Black and Hispanic respondents, respectively.

Also particularly alarming is the rise in food insecurity among children. Nearly 1 in 5 mothers of young children (12 and under) reported that their children weren’t eating enough in April — a level five times higher than in 2018 — because they couldn’t afford enough food. Food insecurity among children can have lasting impacts on their mental and physical development and overall health and well-being. And because parents often skip meals or eat less themselves so that their children have enough to eat, the share of parents who don’t get enough to eat is usually even higher than the share of affected children.

SNAP is responding to increased need during this pandemic partly thanks to steps that policymakers have taken to enhance food assistance, such as letting states provide emergency supplemental benefits that raise households’ SNAP levels to the current maximum amount and creating a new mechanism known as Pandemic-EBT (or P-EBT) to compensate for meals that children miss due to school closures.

But policymakers should do more. About 40 percent of SNAP households — families with the lowest incomes that are already getting the maximum benefit — aren’t benefiting from the emergency benefits. It’s also not clear that every state will apply for P-EBT or that policymakers will extend it through the summer. That’s why additional measures, such as those in the Heroes Act to raise the maximum SNAP benefit levels and address problematic restrictions in the food assistance relief measures enacted thus far, are needed to aid households with the highest risk for homelessness, food insecurity, and other hardships.

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