Twenty-five states are withdrawing from federal unemployment benefits, which will exacerbate demand from already-straining food banks
For the past year and a half, food banks, community fridges, and mutual aid pantries have been overwhelmed with demand. Though many officials are acting like the pandemic is over, millions of Americans are still suffering. According to Census data from May, over 19 million American adults say their household sometimes or often did not have enough to eat over the past week, almost three times the number who experienced food insecurity in 2019. And now, cuts to government assistance — deemed unnecessary by some legislators — may make it worse.
President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which increases SNAP benefits by 15 percent and expands unemployment insurance, is scheduled to expire in September. But some states have already canceled federal unemployment aid, and 25 states will withdraw from at least some form of federal assistance by July. All states withdrawing from federal assistance have Republican governors.
Republicans in the Ohio Senate also recently pushed through changes to the state’s SNAP benefits program, further limiting who is eligible for food assistance. Among the changes is limiting the total assets a family can have to qualify to $2,250. Assets include cars not used for work, or those worth more than $4,650. So basically, if you have a decent operable car, you can’t qualify. “It’s going to take food out of the mouths of hungry children and working families,” Ohio Association of Foodbanks Director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt told the Columbus Dispatch.
These states’ governors seem convinced that federal aid is keeping people from seeking employment. “Now that our businesses and schools have reopened, these payments are discouraging people from returning to work,” said Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. However, that theory has been pretty thoroughly debunked, as many say they can’t take the risk of working, especially for low wages and instability that restaurants and other industries currently offer.
Much food assistance has come in the form of mutual aid community fridges and food pantries, which accept food donations from individuals and restaurants in the community, then redistributes them to all who need it. Unlike charity, which relies on a one-way dynamic of organizations determining what is needed in a community (often from the outside), mutual aid works off an ethos that everyone has something to give, and everyone has something they need. “Whether it involves the distribution of seeds and plants, groceries, or medical supplies, mutual aid also takes place outside of systems of governance that silence the marginalized, and it is based on the understanding that communities have the power to dictate the world they want to live in,” wrote Luz Cruz for Eater.
However, these states’ withdrawals will further strain America’s patchwork food assistance system, which has already faced long lines and heavy demand, as well as fewer donations. “We are still distributing about a million to a million and a half more meals each month than we did pre Covid,” Teresa Schryver, advocacy manager for the St Louis Area Food Bank in Bridgeton, Missouri, told the Guardian. “We might see a spike again in July and August as we’re losing the unemployment benefits here in Missouri, so we might be doing 2 million meals again for a couple of months.” The cuts will end or reduce benefits for 3.9 million people across 25 states.
On top of the lack of support and assistance, there is also the issue of rising food prices. According to the Wall Street Journal, everything from higher costs of transportation to bad weather affecting crops, as well as a ransomeware attack against food processing company JBS, is resulting in an increase in food prices across the country. “Costs to transport food products are up by as much as 25 percent from a year ago for some food makers because of high demand for shipping during the pandemic coupled with a shortage of truck drivers,” WSJ reports. Beef prices are rising as much as 40 percent, and that even discount stores like Dollar Tree are having a hard time keeping prices low.
As states reopen and federal aid fades away, we must remember that the pandemic and its repercussions are not over. Worldwide, there is still an average of 10,000 COVID-19-related deaths a day, and while numbers are decreasing and vaccinations are increasing in America, we’re still averaging 14,000 cases a day. Children under the age of 12 are still ineligible for the vaccine, making reopening and regular interpersonal contact even more of a questionable calculation for those with families or who work with children. And though treatment has gotten better, many are still suffering from long-term effects of COVID.