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Food scarcity is on the rise in America as the economy reels

Forty Acres Fresh Market fights for food equity
Forty Acres Fresh Market fights "food apartheid" in Chicago 04:04

The number of American families struggling to put food on the table has seen a "substantial" increase since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Federal Reserve of St. Louis said in a new analysis of Census Bureau data. 

Food insecurity — defined as the inability to afford healthy food for all family members — affected 37 million U.S. households even before the start of the disease outbreak. That's due in part to widening income inequality, which has undercut the economic gains during the weak recovery that followed the Great Recession. But food shortages are on the rise as unemployment has surged into double-digits and many workers are furloughed without pay.

More than 10% of households said they sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat in early June, the St. Louis Fed found. That compares with about 8% of households experiencing food scarcity before March 13, when states began shutting down businesses and layoffs spiked, according to Census data. With at least 21 million workers out of a job, 17 million additional Americans are at risk of becoming food insecure, Feeding America, a nonprofit coalition of food banks, said in a recent report

"The lines for food at emergency feeding sites offer a picture of the human suffering that data can only begin to explain," according to a June 18 letter from Feeding America, along with more than 2,500 other advocacy organizations seeking increased funding for food stamps, that was sent to Senate leaders. "This crisis demands a response that is commensurate with its scope and seriousness."

Feeding America seeing 60% spike in demand amid pandemic, CEO says 06:14

According to Feeding America, nearly a quarter of Mississippi residents — more than 700,000 people — could struggle to get food this year, a sharp jump from previous years. Other states expected to see a spike in food insecurity are Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana. 

And while food banks are stepping up, the need is overwhelming. In Houston last month, about 7,000 families showed up for distribution of food at a local food bank. The food bank's manager told "CBS Evening News" that demand had jumped 150% from prior to the pandemic. 

Other parts of the country have seen similar incidents. In food handouts across the country, thousands of families have lined up in cars to pick up boxes of food, like one in Middlebury, Vermont, where some participants said they had never before experienced food insecurity, according to local newspaper Seven Days. 

Trump administration pushes to cut food stamps

Because of increased hunger across the U.S., groups like Feeding America are advocating for a 15% increase in maximum benefits under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is the official name for food stamps.

The groups also want an increase in the SNAP minimum monthly benefit from $16 to $30 and a suspension of time limits, as well as a pause in the Trump administration's rule changes that would cut SNAP eligibility and benefits for more than 5 million people

"Sufficient and timely federal government action is needed to prevent even more human suffering and lost productivity in the short and longer terms," the groups said in their letter to Senate leaders this week.

Largest food bank in U.S. stretched thin amid coronavirus pandemic 03:01

Despite the surge in joblessness and food insecurity during the pandemic, the Trump administration has signaled it's moving forward with cuts to the food stamp program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture last month said it is appealing a court ruling that blocked the Trump administration from imposing additional work requirements for SNAP on poor adults without children, according to court documents. 

The USDA said it was appealing the ruling because it believed it was the "right approach" and that it did not expect economic issues to continue indefinitely.

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