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4 Reasons Why People Need Food Assistance This Spring and Summer

We’re all hungry for good news right now. With a still-active COVID virus, skyrocketing prices on everyday items, and conflict in communities near and far, the last thing people should face is food insecurity. While we fought back the worst of predicted pandemic-era hunger, still more than 800,000 individuals reached out to our network of food shelves and meal programs last year. To address and end hunger, we need to understand why it exists, so here we detail four reasons Minnesotans might be facing hunger right now:

1. Wages lag inflation and jobs are less accessible.

The unemployment rate might be low – Minnesota hit its lowest level since 1999 – but inflation has spurred a record decline in workers’ wages and benefits, even when some workers are seeing pay increases. For Minnesota workers, average hourly wage increases in the private sector increased by 4.9% over the year. But this covers just over half the yearly inflation rate of 8.5% seen in March 2022. Therefore, wages aren’t keeping up with the rising cost of living, leaving Minnesotans to look for help affording necessities like rent or mortgage payments, utilities and groceries.

Even with a record low unemployment rate, we also see many Minnesotans still stuck outside the labor force. While the overall unemployment rate was 2.5% in March, Black unemployment rose to a troubling 7.1% in March, more than twice the level of White unemployment at 3%. Latino unemployment rose to 5.1%. According to Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Steve Grove and Angelina Nguyen, DEED's labor market information office director, Black Minnesotans were particularly hurt during the pandemic, as they were more likely to be among the first workers laid off and the least likely to be recalled to jobs even as more businesses opened back up.

Labor force participation is also stalled at lower rates than we saw pre-pandemic. This measures the share of the population 16 and up that is either working or actively looking for work. Historically, Minnesota has had one of the highest labor force participation rates in the country, around 70%. While we’re slowly inching back toward that pre-pandemic baseline, up to 68.1% in March from 67.6% in January, this translates to over 100,000 fewer Minnesotans working than before the pandemic. Early retirements and parents opting out of the workforce to care for children are two common reasons to explain the decline, and both these decisions can put additional financial strain on families trying to make ends meet when household savings, particularly for low-income families, are starting to run out.

2. Prices on everyday items, including groceries, are skyrocketing.

Lagging wages are coming at a time when prices are rising faster than they have in 40 years. The price of groceries increased 10 percent in the last year, eating away at paychecks. Unexpected challenges like the recent outbreak of avian flu also affect food prices and availability, with egg prices in April more than double March’s average. With more limited or costly options available at retailers, families look to their neighborhood food shelf – as we hope they will – to keep their fridge and pantries full.

Bridget and Kevin Littlefield are visiting The Open Door Pantry in Eagan twice a month these days, when it used to be maybe once a month, as Bridget’s full-time paycheck isn’t going as far as it used to. The groceries from The Open Door, an agency partner of ours, help the Littlefields catch up on heating, electric and other bills, as well as expenses from Kevin’s father’s funeral last fall.

As a food bank, it’s our responsibility to source the foods that keep neighborhood pantries reliably stocked for the Littlefields. Some of the most cost-prohibitive items at grocery stores, like fresh produce and meat products, are also the most in-demand at food shelves. But the emergency food system is facing many of the same inflation and supply chain challenges as consumers, making our work as a food bank more expensive. Prices on products we need to purchase increased 38% in the past three months.

3. Policies that brought relief are expiring.

With the pandemic persisting for more than two years now, more data is available to help understand the impact of relief programs and how expanded benefits have helped Americans cope. General economic supports, like stimulus checks and child tax credit payments, are often spent on meeting basic needs like food, and are therefore important tools to help reduce food insecurity in times of economic uncertainty.

In addition to these direct payments, we also need to strengthen programs specific to supporting access to nutritious foods, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), that are vital to meeting our mission to end hunger. In 2021, more than $125 billion in SNAP payments were made to families in need across the U.S., a 61% increase over the prior year.

According to researchers at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy, “The last two years taken together have probably shown us more clearly than any time in recent history how much policy matters.” Stimulus checks, expanded unemployment insurance, increased food assistance and other measures likely averted a worst-case scenario.

Unfortunately, Congress has allowed many of these supports to lapse in recent months. Enhanced unemployment benefits and increased child tax credit payments are over, with the end of the latter program pushing nearly 4 million additional kids into poverty. Rental assistance programs have ended with no plans on the horizon to provide funding to keep Minnesotans housed. Schools that have been providing free meals to all students during the pandemic will have to change operations this summer and return to a confusing and burdensome system that leaves one third of Minnesota kids experiencing food insecurity without access to free breakfast and lunch. Many states are choosing to opt-out of additional SNAP benefits, known as E-SNAP, early, even though millions of Americans still face food insecurity and grocery prices are soaring. In Minnesota, we’re bracing for the end of E-SNAP and universal school meals later this summer, both of which have allowed more families to get much-needed help making ends meet.

While this is an incredibly tough time for too many Minnesotans, we’re pleased to see progress on a few programs that will provide a boost to those in need. The Minnesota legislature just passed $500 million in aid to frontline workers, with eligible workers receiving an estimated $750 from the state. The legislature is also considering policy change to expand access to free school meals to kids attending high-poverty schools through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), and legislation to continue free meals for all students received positive feedback during committee hearings back in March.

4. Uncertainty and instability make recovery more difficult.

Many of the institutions we count on to help fill the plates of Minnesotans facing food insecurity are facing their own challenges that can hamper their effectiveness.

Schools and other meal providers are scrambling to adjust operation plans after Congress declined to extend flexibilities in how they offered school and summer meals back in March. Not only will this create additional burdens and costs for school nutrition staff, but it’s sowing confusion for families who don’t know when, where and how they’ll be able to access meals for their kids starting this summer.

Tough pandemic-era working conditions in vital occupations like nursing and teaching are leading to a swell of early retirements and career switches within industries that already faced worker shortages. In doctor’s offices and classrooms, these were some of the first people to identify signs of food insecurity and help connect those in need with programs like SNAP or direct them to their local food shelf.

Food banks like Second Harvest Heartland are facing increased costs to source food while support from federal programs like The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) goes down. In 2022, the amount of food we're receiving from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is less than half what it was in 2021. This represents a loss of more than 7 million meals in our service area that we’ll have to make up through other means.

What you can do to support those facing hunger and an uphill recovery:

  • Read our other ‘4 Reasons Why’ blog posts, from July 2021 and December 2021, to understand what has been helping and hurting hunger relief efforts throughout the pandemic.

  • Listen to the stories of folks facing food insecurity and other barriers to stability. We often share those stories on our blog. Also, The Sahan Journal is a rich storytelling resource on the struggles, successes and transformations of Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color.

  • Advocate for the policies and programs that will bring meaningful solutions. Join our advocacy list and follow us on Twitter for the latest updates.