Inflation Is a Triple Threat to Food and Nutrition Security. Here’s Why.

November 8, 2022 | 8:00 am
Produce at a grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia.USDA/Flickr
Alice Reznickova
Interdisciplinary Scientist

This fall, the news has been full of reports of inflation, including surging food prices. The cost of groceries has increased by 13 percent over the past 12 months, meaning that a $100 supermarket trip in September 2021 cost $113 in September 2022. While $13 may not seem like all that much, it can have a large impact in a country where 13.5 million households struggled last year to put food on the table.

So, how does inflation affect food insecure households?

As prices of everything increase, families must make difficult decisions

It’s not just food prices. Over the past year, housing prices increased by 6% and energy spending/costs by a whopping 19.8%. Because these expenditures are non-negotiable if families do not want to lose the roof over their head, what often gives is their food budget. More than half of food pantry clients report having to choose between food and other bills, like housing and utilities.

The cost of transportation presents another challenge. Over 53 million peoplemore than the population of Texas and Florida combined—live in low-income areas with low food access, where getting to the nearest full-service grocery store requires a car or bus ride. This year, transportation costs also increased significantly, making each grocery store trip even more expensive.

To keep costs low, families may compromise by buying less healthy food, which affects their health in the long term and can make it even harder to keep up with the rising cost of health care.

Overall, inflation forces more households to make even more difficult decisions. Often, a household’s food bill is the last to be paid because, as opposed to other services, there is support in the form of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) or a local food pantry that helps families put food on the table.

Or is there?

SNAP is often insufficient and slow in responding to inflation

SNAP helps more than 41 million people—roughly the equivalent of the population of New York State, Georgia, and Michigan combined—put food on their table every month. SNAP supports millions of American families, often adult caretakers with children or seniors, and plays an important role in both urban and rural economies. Other USDA-supported programs may provide additional incentives to purchase local fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets, which help SNAP dollars stretch even further while supporting local farmers. Despite this support, in the past, families reported SNAP as insufficient, and many must rely on food banks and pantries as an additional safety net.

In 2021, the USDA took a historic step to revise the Thrifty Food Plan, which is the basis of SNAP benefits. This resulted in an average increase of $36 increase in benefits monthly. While this increase is important, SNAP does not respond to fast-paced inflation like what we’ve seen this year. Even though the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan is updated monthly to reflect changing food prices, SNAP benefits are updated only annually. The June Thrifty Food Plan costs set SNAP benefits for a year starting October 1. That means that SNAP benefits between October 1, 2022 to October 1, 2023, are based on the cost of food in June 2022, even though in the three months since, food prices already increased by 2.8% and are projected to continue rising. That means that each month food prices rise, families have less money available for food.

Moreover, while Congress and the USDA put additional emergency SNAP benefits in place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 16 states have opted out in recent months, so SNAP users are suffering an additional hit.

Food banks and food pantries suffer during inflation, too

Over 53 million people visited one of the 60,000 food pantries in the United States in 2021. It appears that despite the pandemic waning, the mile-long lines from 2020 are not getting much shorter. Over 80% of the surveyed food pantries reported steady or increasing need.

Unfortunately, food banks are not immune to outside economic pressures either. With inflation hitting donors, too, food banks receive fewer donations–and the money they do receive buys less food as food prices increase and the cost of distribution, storage, and other operational costs rise with it. While the Biden & Harris administration provided emergency relief in the form of additional funding this year, food banks will need continued support to fix the crises. Without additional help, the families who seek food pantries to supplement their weekly food budget will not be able to put food on the table.  

What can be done?

Inflation grew and continues to grow during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has eroded food and nutritional food security in the United States. Both SNAP and emergency food systems need government support to effectively respond to this inflation, but also to address the existing, chronic need of food insecure households.

To truly address nutrition security, we need sustainable and equitable food systems. This means addressing some of the root causes of nutrition insecurity: inequity and injustice. Food and nutrition insecurity in the general population was 10% in 2021, but in Hispanic communities it reaches 16% and in African American communities 20%–one in five households–because of centuries of systemic racism and violence that have cut people of color off from affordable, accessible healthy food.

While underemployment and unemployment are linked to food insecurity, many households that experience food insecurity have adults with full-time jobs. Ironically, it is the workers in food systems, such as farm workers and retail and service workers–again, predominantly people of color–who earn some of the lowest wages in this country while food corporations’ profits soar.

Without a food system transformation that includes cracking down on monopolies, it is unlikely that the situation will improve. Tyson reported record earnings earlier this year as they raised prices above inflation. Another emerging story is the announced Kroger and Albertsons merger, which will affect independent retailers and limit food choices in many communities. A past study showed a 3 to 7 percent increase in prices as a result of mergers.

The Farm Bill, up for reauthorization in 2023, is our best chance to address the interlinked causes of food and nutrition insecurity because it touches every aspect of our food and farming system. Reimagined, it can increase access to nutritious foods by increasing investments in nutrition and anti-hunger programs, while also addressing the root causes of food and nutrition insecurity by promoting racial justice for farmers and farm workers and fair competition in food industry.