The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 was an economic nosedive for millions of Americans as unemployment soared in a matter of days and food banks and pantries were swamped by the hungry in need, rich and poor alike.
But now, even with unemployment at pre-pandemic levels and slightly increasing wages, hunger levels could be worse across the country and in Southern California.
“During the pandemic, we’ve seen food lines that we haven’t seen since the Depression,” said LaVal Brewer, executive director of South County Outreach, an Irvine-based hunger and homelessness prevention organization.
“But conditions today could actually be worse than they were during the pandemic,” he added. “It may not be as visible, but it’s just as bad.”
Consider: If recent trends continue, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank will serve approximately 800,000 people this month. That’s less than the 1 million people a month helped during the peak of the pandemic, but more than double the 300,000 who were helped in each of the final months leading up to the 2019 pandemic.
“We’re happy. We have good relationships with donors, and that helps,” said group spokesman David May. “But demand hasn’t dropped that much.”
Nonprofit food providers in Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties are reporting similar, if not identical, trends.
But food experts say these numbers only tell part of the story.
During the pandemic, short-term relief programs from all levels of government funneled food and money to food banks and others providing free nutrition. Although distribution has been hampered by the spread and threat of COVID-19, most people who needed food in 2020 and 2021 were able to get it normally.
It is unclear whether that is still true today. Local food bank leaders say this year’s numbers don’t reflect the world of people living are not turn up to eat but are still hungry.
South County Outreach’s Brewer said his organization provided food to 932 families last month — an all-time high. While he’s glad people see his agency as a welcome resource, Brewer noted that an all-time high for food gifting isn’t a good thing. And like others, he believes more people need help but aren’t getting it.
This history is also partly reflected in numbers.
The Orange County Food Bank is on track to give out about £27million of food this year, either directly to those in need or indirectly to smaller food supplies and others, according to the nonprofit. While that’s more than the £23million the group distributed in 2019, it’s well below the £63million of food the OC Food Bank handled last year.
But where the surge in demand in 2020-21 was met with an influx of food donations and cash, this year’s decline is a supply-side concern.
“This lower total this year reflects less food spending, not a drop in demand,” said Mark Lowry, the organization’s operations director.
“The truth is we don’t know how many people are actually in need.”
Lowry pointed to an email exchange this week in which he saw a request from a group to feed 500 families, but a response noting the food bank was only providing food for about half that number could.
“These other families aren’t getting help, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need it,” he said. “Hunger hasn’t gone anywhere.”
Eat on budgets
The problem is inflation, which Lowry and others say is contributing to the region’s hunger problem in different ways, some obvious and some hidden.
On the obvious side, inflation means staples are harder to afford. According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, food prices in the Los Angeles area rose nearly 8% over the past year. Energy (gasoline) prices rose 23.8%, while prices for other items – housing, clothing, transportation – rose a more modest 6%.
That’s prompting low-income earners and fixed-income seniors — who make up the vast majority of people served by pantries — to seek help with their grocery bills, the rare budget item that can be slashed month-to-month.
“The cost of living today is putting more people in a different situation who wouldn’t have thought of themselves for food assistance in 2019,” Brewer said.
But the less obvious problem is the impact of inflation on non-profit food providers. Although they work with bills for gas, rent, and other expenses like any other business, they don’t have the ability to pass these higher costs on to their customers.
“We deliver by truck and serve about 300 pantries,” said Claudia Keller, executive director of Orange County’s Second Harvest Food Bank. “That’s a lot of gas.”
Brewer repeated that.
“All the same problems that you see in a household or a business are seen here,” he said. “We dance the inflation dance ourselves.”
At most food banks in Southern California, 90% or more of the produce given to those in need is donated by either individuals or farmers or grocery stores or restaurants. That mitigates the pain of rising food prices, but doesn’t eliminate it. But it limits some of those donations. Broadly speaking, food bank operators said the same economic dynamic that is bringing more people to the food bank — inflation — is also causing food providers to close their doors a little closer.
“We’re not worried at the moment. But we’re wondering if we can leave the lights on in six months,” Brewer said.
Inflation is also hurting food banks by changing the national narrative. During the pandemic, local and national media focused on stories about people in cars (sometimes high-priced cars) idling in miles-long lines waiting for a box of groceries. Today, the focus of the news is how the economic woes remain, even though the job market is growing.
One story tends to make people think about food banks, the other doesn’t. For organizations that live on donations, this change in perception has hurt.
“We’re not the big story right now,” said Lowry of OC Food Bank. “It means we’re not number one. People are still generous, but people have moved on.”
Others also note that inflation drives hunger.
In September, the Urban Institute released a study that found that one in five Americans is currently facing some form of food insecurity, about the same as during the peak of the pandemic.
In its report, the Urban Institute — a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that tracks economic data affecting American families — described the situation as follows:
“High food price inflation, along with increased costs for other basic needs like transportation and rent, have likely eroded food budgets over the past year.
“Moreover, some of the safety net measures that cushioned food insecurity in 2021 are no longer in place. Unemployment rates have fallen significantly since early 2020 and wages have risen for many, but wage growth has not kept pace with rapidly rising inflation.”
The study also found that the greatest need is among families with young children and in communities of color. In the past year, the report says, the number of people expressing urgent food needs has nearly doubled, from about 5% to about 9% of the population.
If the onset of the pandemic was an economic reckoning for all Americans, a deadline coming early next year could spell a second blow for lower-income Californians.
In October, the state announced it would end the official public health emergency triggered by COVID-19 on February 28, 2023, nearly three years after the original order was issued.
Though the state plans to maintain some health programs, including allowing nurses to administer COVID-19 vaccines, local food bank officials fear the state will cut emergency allocations for the state’s CalFresh nutritional supplement program. If that plays out — and it’s unclear for now if the state plans to end the subsidy — lower-income people could get less from CalFresh each month. This in turn could put a strain on budgets that many are already unable to break.
“When government (pandemic) aid waned, we knew it was coming and we could handle it. And the generosity of the community — our community in particular — has stayed because people know we need them,” said Second Harvest’s Keller.
“But benefits for individuals, that’s different. Again, if you get CalFresh benefits and they go away, that could be a real food cliff for a lot of people.”
https://www.ocregister.com/2022/12/03/inflation-is-producing-and-hiding-hunger-in-southern-california/ Inflation creates and hides hunger in Southern California – Orange County Register