Each summer, families with children struggle to meet their food needs as there are limited summer food offerings for school-age children. This summer, establishing food security likely will be harder, as high inflation increases the cost of foods like meats, fresh produce, and dairy and heightens trade-offs families make between food and other rising costs. For families experiencing food insecurity, inflation can increase food insecurity and limit the adequacy of current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
Food insecurity is a household measure that reflects limited or uncertain access to adequate food. In a recent report examining food needs and resources in Arlington County, Virginia, we found that households experiencing food insecurity face challenges paying expenses, and food budgets are often cut first in times of financial hardship as they trade off between food, rent, and utilities.
Some Arlington County families struggled to meet their food needs in late 2021 as inflation began to rise, opting to reduce the nutritional quality of the food they eat, reducing their food intake overall, or opting for lower-cost alternatives, all of which points to deepening food insecurity. Without additional support, families may become less food secure as inflationary pressures limit their ability to fully meet their food needs.
“Sometimes, there is not much money. Like meat—you know today how much it has gone up in price. That’s why sometimes we don’t buy meat, [instead] we make vegetable soup.”
—Arlington County, Virginia, mother of two, late 2021
How can policymakers support residents experiencing food insecurity this summer?
Arlington County and other federal, state, and local governments have demonstrated a commitment to help residents avoid food insecurity. Governments at various levels can better support food-insecure residents this summer through the following policy actions.
- Expand SNAP outreach and increase SNAP benefit amounts. SNAP is often the first defense against food insecurity and is incredibly responsive to economic conditions. About 18 percent of eligible families were not accessing the SNAP program in 2018, suggesting local governments can work to expand outreach and program participation for eligible families. For those who participate, the maximum SNAP benefit did not cover families’ food needs in 21 percent of US counties in both rural and urban areas, even with the increases to SNAP benefits in 2021. As prices increase, fewer families will be able to meet their food needs with existing supports, and federal policymakers can pursue efforts to increase SNAP benefit amounts.
- Approve the expanded child tax credit (CTC). The expanded CTC reduced food insecurity among recipients 5 percentage points more than nonrecipients and helped families pay their bills. As families with children experience steeper rates of food insecurity that have long-term implications for children’s development and well-being, federal policymakers could permanently approve expanded CTC benefits to reduce food insecurity among families with children (PDF) and improve long-term outcomes for children.
- Provide gas cards or subsidized public transportationfares. Families often face trade-offs between food and transportation during tough economic times. As gas prices rise, additional financial supports for households experiencing food insecurity can subsidize the cost of traveling to the grocery store or food pantry so families can access the resources they need. Additionally, federal and state policymakers can consider offsetting grocery delivery fees for households with low incomes, as these fees can limit families’ ability to access healthy foods as more and more families use online ordering to meet their needs.
- Expand and improve charitable food services. Nearly one-quarter of food-insecure adults and half of very-food-insecure adults use free groceries or meals to meet their food needs. But access to charitable food services is not equitable across communities and populations. Local and state governments can provide financial support to expand charitable food services into high-need and low-access areas, which can ensure families get the help they need. In addition, charitable food providers can shift or expand hours of operation to include more evening and weekend hours can ensure working families can access free groceries and meals. Given the high costs of meat and protein that comprise a healthy diet, providers could consider offering greater portions of protein and meat in food distributions to households in need.
“Things are a lot more expensive. I have been cutting down on the kinds of food I buy and sometimes the amount. Things are much better now, but I’ve had a few months where I just didn’t have money to go shopping.”
–Arlington County, Virginia, resident living alone, late 2021
Although the solutions above can help support families this summer, policymakers can also enact policies that buffer against inflation and improve food security in the long term. Addressing chronic disinvestment in communities, piloting guaranteed income programs, removing barriers for communities of color to opportunities, improving job quality, streamlining and connecting public benefits, and ensuring housing affordability can help families get the boost they need to become food secure this summer and beyond.