Hunger and food insecurity in the United States have declined dramatically over the past six months, but needs remain well above pre-pandemic levels.
And while that demand has declined somewhat in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area, local food bank officials are also seeing an increase in requests for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
âOne thing that’s exploding on our site is the SNAP Application Support Program,â said Jennifer Miller, CEO of the Westmoreland County Food Bank in Delmont. âA lot of people also need products that you can’t get on food stamps, like paper products. And our senior box program is very popular right now.
Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank spokesperson Christa Johnson said while customer numbers have been fairly stable in recent months, they have also seen a significant increase in SNAP registrations.
âThe (federal) SNAP benefit increase went into effect in October, so we kind of anticipated the numbers to go up,â Johnson said.
President Biden this month instituted a permanent 25% increase in SNAP benefits.
Johnson said the increase in benefits is likely related to some of their lower client numbers.
âWe generally saw an increase in the number of clients when they ran out of SNAP benefits towards the end of the month,â she said. “Those numbers are down a bit, probably because with the increase they now have enough perks to get through the month.”
The Ministry of Agriculture, which administers the SNAP, reports that the number of users of the program increased by 7 million between 2019 and 2021.
Hunger specialists warn that the situation of millions of families remains extremely fragile.
An Associated Press review of bulk distribution issues of hundreds of food banks across the country revealed a clear downward trend in the amount of food distributed across the country, starting in the spring the deployment of the covid-19 vaccine took hold and closed sectors of the economy began to reopen.
âIt’s down, but it’s still high,â said Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Feeding America, a nonprofit that coordinates the efforts of more than 200 food banks across the country and who provided the AP with national distribution numbers. She warned that despite recent declines, the amount of food distributed by Feeding America’s partner food banks remained more than 55% higher than pre-pandemic levels. “We are concerned that (food insecurity) will worsen again if too many shoes fall off,” she said.
These potential setbacks include the advance of the delta variant of the coronavirus, which has already delayed scheduled returns to the office of millions of employees and could threaten school closings and other closures as the country enters winter flu season. Other obstacles include the gradual expiration of several specific covid protections like the moratorium on evictions and the extension of unemployment benefits.
All in all, families facing food insecurity still find themselves dependent on external assistance and extremely vulnerable to unforeseen difficulties.
âThere are people going back to work, but it’s slow and God forbid you need a car repair or something,â Carmen Cumberland, president of the Community Harvest Food Bank, told Fort Wayne, Ind.
Nationally, food banks working with Feeding America saw a 31% increase in the amount of food distributed in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020, just before the global pandemic reached America.
Miller said that although the Westmoreland Food Bank numbers are “a little low in the pantry, there is still a huge need right now.”
How long the high level of need will last is a matter of debate, with the most conservative estimates predicting that it will last until next summer. Some predict that the country’s food banks may never return to normal.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the AP that at the height of the pandemic, 14% of American adults were receiving SNAP benefits. That number has now fallen to around 8%, but the need remains very high, and nonprofit charitable options like food banks play a critical role in filling the remaining holes in millions of family budgets, he said. declared.
“We just need to understand what this pandemic has done in terms of significantly disrupting what was probably a fairly fragile system to begin with,” said Vilsack, who also held the same cabinet post under former President Barack Obama. “It revealed the fragility of the system, which makes programs like SNAP, programs like summer feeding programs, school feeding programs, food bank assistance even more important.”