Almost 25% of American adults are food insecure, a jump of about five percentage points from a year earlier as the double whammy of high inflation and the end of pandemic benefits squeezes more household budgets, according to a new study.
Food insecurity indicates that someone isn’t able to secure enough food for a nutritious diet, which can lead to skipping meals or cutting back on food. Those strategies, though, can have implications for a person’s health and well-being, experts say.
The rise in food insecurity comes as more households are struggling to pay their typical bills amid grocery costs that have surged 20% in two years and rents that have increased 13%. Inflation surged last year to a four-decade high just as several pandemic-related benefits came to an end, heightening the financial stress for many, according to the new report from the Urban Institute.
“Food insecurity can be a canary in the coal mine for people who are experiencing high levels of hardship and aren’t able to meet their household needs,” Kassandra Martinchek, a research associate in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute, told CBS MoneyWatch.
She added, “It’s a household economic condition where folks don’t have enough resources to have enough food for their family for an active or healthy life.”
The study, which is based on a survey of almost 8,000 adults in December, found that about 1 in 6 adults relied on charitable food, such as free groceries or meals, last year. By comparison, about 1 in 8 adults relied on food charity in 2019, prior to the pandemic, the study noted.
Even though more Americans are finding jobs — and the labor market remains strong — wages aren’t keeping up with inflation, which is chipping away at household purchasing power. And food-stamp enrollment remains high, with 42.6 million people receiving benefits as of December, about 15% higher than prior to the pandemic, according to the most recent data available.
Almost two-thirds of adults said their grocery costs increased a lot in the last year, more than the share of Americans who said they were feeling the impact of higher gas prices, rents, child care or health insurance, the analysis found.
Adults whose grocery costs increased a lot were about twice as likely as other adults to be food insecure, the study found.
Food insecure households may “have to make really tough decisions about whether they can pay their rent and their groceries, or lifesaving medication and their groceries,” Martinchek said.
Aside from people who are food insecure, there are another roughly 10% of Americans who are anxious about their ability to pay for food, she added.
These are “folks who feel they are but one emergency away from being able to meet their food needs,” she noted.
Food insecurity may only worsen in 2023 due to the impact of cuts to the food stamp program, she added. More than 30 states cut their food stamp benefits in March due to the expiration of a pandemic program to provide more funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Policy changes could address the relatively high levels of food insecurity in the U.S., Martinchek noted. Bringing back programs such as free universal school meals or the expanded Child Tax Credit would help provide families with more resources to feed themselves and their children, she said.