Inflation casts a shadow over Thanksgiving as food banks struggle to meet demand

This Thanksgiving, as many sit down with friends and family at tables overstuffed with food, there are millions of Americans who aren’t as fortunate. The holiday is a reminder of the stark reality of what’s called food insecurity. It’s widespread in the United States and there’s no obvious end in sight. Katie Fitzgerald of Feeding America joined William Brangham to discuss what can be done.

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  • William Brangham:

    This holiday, as so many of us are sitting down with friends and family at tables overstuffed with food, there are millions of Americans who aren't nearly so fortunate.

    So, Thanksgiving Day is also a reminder of the stark reality of what's called food insecurity. It is widespread in the United States, and there's no obvious end in sight. Organizations that address this need say they have had to ramp up their efforts this year.

    One of those groups is called Feeding America. And, in 2019, they distributed 4.2 billion meals. In 2021, that number increased by one billion to 5.2 billion meals. In 2019, some 40 million people received some kind of charity food assistance. But, last year, that number jumped to 53 million.

    Earlier this week, I spoke with the chief operating officer of Feeding America, Katie Fitzgerald. We talked about what's driving this and what more needs to be done.

    Katie Fitzgerald, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    So, tens of millions of Americans are technically food-insecure. But what is your sense? Do those federal numbers give a full and accurate picture of the issue here in the U.S.?

  • Katie Fitzgerald, Chief Operating Officer, Feeding America:

    Yes, thank you, William for having me today.

    It gives us a perspective on the issue, but it doesn't really give us a full understanding of what food insecurity looks like in the U.S. For instance, last year, we estimate that 53 million people access the charitable food system to help make sure they had food on the table for themselves, for their children, seniors, people with disabilities.

    So that is obviously 20 million more or so then the food insecurity rate, which is really measuring whether people on a given day when they're asked that question can afford to buy food. A lot of folks are making — they're making sure they have enough food by accessing that charitable food system.

  • William Brangham:

    And it's really just incredibly shocking numbers in this country.

    Can you help me with an issue about terminology? When we say food insecurity vs. hunger, can you delineate the distinctions there?

  • Katie Fitzgerald:

    Yes, I'd be happy to.

    Hunger is something, William, that we all can relate to, in the sense that we know that feeling when our stomach is growling, we're uncomfortable, and maybe we're having trouble focusing, and we need to eat. And it's our physiology that tells us that we're hungry. And we all have that feeling.

    Food insecurity is really a socioeconomic condition that people find themselves in when they have to make economic tradeoffs and have to cut their food budgets and limit the amount of food that they're able to procure for themselves or their families, because they simply don't have enough money to make ends meet, to pay their rent, their mortgage, their utilities, all those kinds of things that are really necessary.

    So there's a relationship, obviously, between the two. We might not be able to eradicate food insecurity fully in this country, but we sure can end hunger through a mix of private supports and public benefits.

  • William Brangham:

    So, when you look at those tens of millions of Americans who are food-insecure, what are the principal drivers of that?

  • Katie Fitzgerald:

    Well, it's a complex question, to be sure.

    So, a lot of what's driving food insecurity is essentially a mix of economic pressures on American households, so the pressures of wages not really experiencing real growth for a very long time in this country up until recently, before the pandemic, health care expenses, which have exploded over the last couple of decades, education, higher education.

    So the mix of the economic pressures on American households from a wage and expense perspective are what's really keeping food insecurity rates higher than they should be in a country where food is plentiful and we are one of the richest countries on the Earth.

  • William Brangham:

    Right. That is the great irony here, that, when people hear about this idea of hunger or food insecurity in a country of such plenty, it's striking to so many of us, not just on Thanksgiving week.

    When we think back to during the pandemic, when so many people were at home or out of work, there were enormous federal supports, food assistance, additional salary compensation, school meals. A lot of that aid that has dried up or gone away now. That's also got to be a major contributing factor to all this too.

  • Katie Fitzgerald:

    Yes, we are in another perfect storm. We experienced the pandemic and the surge in food insecurity as a perfect storm. And I would say we're sort of in a new iteration of that right now.

    And you're exactly right. The many public supports that were put into place in response to the sudden shattering of our economy and people losing their livelihoods overnight are going away, if not have gone away. And inflation in food prices is now presenting a new major problem for people's ability to feed themselves and their families, as I'm sure the audience knows.

    So that combination of federal commodity food being down, public benefits being down, food prices really pushing many more millions of Americans into food insecurity, and the food banks are experiencing those same price increases. And so they are getting less for their dollar and they're less able to purchase their way to fill that gap.

  • William Brangham:

    I know organizations like yours and a lot of local food banks saw a good uptick in donations, financial and actual tangible donations, during the pandemic.

    Where does that stand now? How is giving going in this country?

  • Katie Fitzgerald:

    Well, people are still extremely generous and committed to the cause of ending hunger in the United States. So we're grateful for those gifts.

    But donations are down compared to this time last year. And, again, part of the challenge is, food banks are having to spend more, and they're getting less food for their dollar. So what we're seeing is, 70 percent of the Feeding America food banks have told us that they will spend more to purchase food this year than last year, and they will get less for that money.

    In addition, over 40 percent of our food banks are operating in a deficit budget in order to do that. So they are dipping into the reserves, into those funds that they raised last year to pay for food that they need today. So we are really hoping and encouraging people who can, provide some support to the Feeding America network, that they will do that.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, that is Katie Fitzgerald, the chief operating officer of Feeding America.

    Thank you so much for being here today.

  • Katie Fitzgerald:

    Thank you, William, for having me and for bringing greater visibility to this important issue.

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