For Monique James, a mother of five from New York’s congressional district 16 in the Bronx, feeding her family has never been an easy task. This year, it is even harder when she finds herself constantly short of money.
“The cost of living is just harmful for poor people like myself, and I’d have to say my food budget has increased $200 a month,” said James. “Every food item and every store have gone up, so the price is not really affordable now.”
Like millions of other low-income Americans, James is bearing the brunt of food inflation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, food at home for urban consumers inflated by 6.2 percent in the year ending October 2011.
Food price inflation at this rate is posing a hunger threat to low income Americans, who “had done far worse” than poor people in other parts of the western world, according to Joel Berg, a food security expert and executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger.
“One of the few benefits for low income people in America compared to other developed countries that had higher wages, and higher-developed social safety nets was at least we had lower food prices,” said Berg. “With the sky-rocketing food prices over the last few years, low-income Americans have lost even that one minimum advantage.”
Food Insecurity a Major Issue
Hunger has been a real problem in America, and despite having the reputation of being one of the country’s most prosperous cities, New York is facing not a lesser issue of food insecurity. According to the Food Hardship in America Report released earlier this year by the Food Research and Action Center, more than 20 percent of residents in nine of NYC’s 13 congressional districts lacked money for food last year.
The situation is worst in congressional district 16th, where 32.7 percent, or almost one in three people could not afford enough food. Compared to the national average of 18 percent, this is a significantly higher rate. The report also shows that district 16 is not only the hungriest area in NYC, but also the hungriest in the whole nation.
“[district 16] is one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, and it has high level of hunger and food insecurity for years, so unfortunately it’s no shock to us that they still have this problem,” commented Berg. “The reason is pretty simple: not enough people have jobs, those people who have jobs are often underpaid or don’t work full-time, and the federal nutrition safety net is not as strong as it needs to be.”
James has been unemployed for six years due to multiple health issues, and relies on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as “food stamps”, to feed her family. But the challenge of getting by on food stamps is not small to take.
For important events like Thanksgiving or Christmas, James would ease her pocket and load up her shopping cart with green vegetables, a healthy food that her family has grown to eat since her daughter was diagnosed with diabetes. But in other times of the year, fresh fruit and vegetables have become a luxury that she has to cut back on to make ends meet. Balancing her children’s calorie and nutrition needs has also become more difficult.
“I would really have to say I have to cut back on vegetables because they are going up extremely,” said James. “For the kids, I try to give them more vegetable and cut back on starch, but it doesn’t help, because they are growing kids, they love to eat, and their metabolism burns.”
Not only vegetable, but also other food categories with high nutritional values rose dramatically in prices, compared to the average food-at-home inflation rate of 6.2 percent. Meat, poultry, fish and eggs cost 7.4 percent more than last year, while dairy products are 9 percent more expensive.
“Meat was seeing a lot of inflation because feed prices are high, fuel prices are high and also the inventory in the US right now is low, while we have really strong demand for this food, especially from overseas due to the weak US dollar,” said Richard Volpe, an economist from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. “Same story for dairy,” he added.
Food Assistance Programs Struggle to Meet Demand
Despite having to cut back on good food, James and some other 1.8 million NYC residents, or one in five households, can still manage to put food on the table, thanks to their SNAP benefits. With the recent economic downturns, more and more people are in need of food stamps. Statewide, SNAP participation rate has soared by 53 percent over the past three years. But according to estimates by the Food Research and Action Center, there are still three in ten Americans eligible for food stamps go un-served.
“Here in New York, there are at least 500.000 people eligible for those benefits but not getting them, so it’s really a serious problem of underutilization,” said Berg. “It’s not that people don’t know about them, it’s that the city and state and federal governments have made it incredibly difficult for struggling families to get food stamp benefits which equal only a little more than one dollar per meal.”
As vital as SNAP is to combat hunger in America, the food assistance program has often found itself on the chopping block when it comes to funding cuts. Last year, Congress passed two bills that cut the SNAP benefit boosts, making room for approximately 10 percent reduction in average per person benefits.
This year, the House passed the controversial Paul Ryan Budget Plan to cut 20 percent off SNAP funding and convert the program to a block grant, potentially making access even more difficult for people in need. The plan, fortunately, was voted down by the Senate.
The 2012 Agricultural Appropriations Bill, signed by President Obama late last month, allocates an extra $14 billion to food stamp fund. Anti-hunger activists welcomed the bill, seeing it as the necessary reversal of the devastating cuts that have already been in implementation.
“Even with higher level of SNAP food stamp, there are 49 million Americans living in households that cannot afford enough food,” said Berg. “If we take away billions of extra food dollars from those struggling families, has been proposed by congress and actually implemented, if that’s not reversed you are really going to see mass suffering in this country.”
With the typical SNAP benefit of just about $4.5 per person per day, James has found that the monthly allowance can only last her family three weeks. She joins the line our side food pantries to get some groceries for the fourth week.
“Before allowing my kids to go hungry, I have to stand in the same line that I donated to for many of years, to get me a donation,” shared James. “It’s hard, but you have to do what you have to do to feed the kids.”
According to Food Bank for NYC, approximately 1.3 million residents in the city, mainly women, children, senior, the working poor and people with disabilities, are relying on soup kitchens and food pantries. They run on both public funding and donations, but these resources have been in the decline due to the bad economy.
Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger Food Pantry in Brooklyn had about 10,000 patrons last year. This year, it is serving 15,000 resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
“Since the summer months till now, we have seen a steady increase in the number of people needing food, and we find that our resource are being used up”, said Dr. Malony Samuels, Bed-Stuy Campaign founder and executive director.
According to Dr Samuels, the bad economy has forced many donors to tighten their belt and stop giving. All the while, food inflation has made it much more costly to feed a family in need. With distribution organizations like Food Bank and City Harvest receive less funding, the pantry receive less food.
“We have got very little from TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program), which would normally our major supply from the Food Bank,” said Dr Samuels. “It is bad that they are experiencing funding cuts, because that will not just us but every emergency food pantries in New York City area.”
Balancing her family’s food budget amid inflation and funding cuts is already a huge challenge for James. But for her family to get by, sometimes she has to make sacrifices that she knows may cause even more harm.
“I have to take medications, but I’m not getting my full meds because either I get my meds or I feed, and of course, I choose to feed my kids,” she said.
But if I don’t take care of myself I won’t be able to feed them, then it’s no good.”