High food prices and a rollback of pandemic aids drove a significant increase in food insecurity last year, according to a survey by the Urban Institute that was published Tuesday. Some 24.6 percent of adults surveyed reported experiencing food insecurity in 2022, up from 20 percent in 2021.
The number of adults experiencing very low food security rose from 9.3 percent to 12.5 percent in the same time period, according to the survey, which interviewed a nationally representative sample of more than 7,500 adults ages 18 to 64. The survey also pointed to persistent racial disparities—Black and Hispanic/Latinx respondents were 50 percent more likely to report experiencing food insecurity in 2022 than white, non-Latino respondents.
In December 2022, 63.2 percent of respondents said their grocery costs had increased “a lot” in the previous year. And those who reported large increases in grocery costs were nearly twice as likely to be food insecure as other adults, with about six of every 10 respondents in that category reporting either eating less or forgoing the kinds of groceries they wanted.
At the same time that costs rose, temporary safety net programs that had been put into place to buffer the pandemic’s economic effects — such as free school meals, the expanded child tax credit and extra SNAP allotments — began to be withdrawn. These programs have been widely credited with preventing hunger and hardship during the pandemic, but the gains evaporated as the supports were withdrawn, the report said.
Still, even as food hardship increased, the number of households getting food from food pantries and free meal programs fell — just 16 percent of respondents said they got food from the emergency food system, compared to 17.4 percent in 2021 and 19.7 percent in 2020. But the number of families relying on the charitable food system remains much higher than before the pandemic; in 2019, 12.7 percent of adults reported getting food from emergency sources.
To protect families, the report’s authors called for a permanent increase in the amount of SNAP benefits, which fell short of covering families’ needs even after a cost-of-living adjustment last year, the report said.
“A strong SNAP program is particularly critical in this period of increasing food insecurity and persistently high food prices,” the authors wrote.
That will be a difficult sell in Congress, where Republicans recently proposed limiting the amount of time that able-bodied adults without dependents can get SNAP benefits.
The survey’s authors also urged policymakers to make school meals free to all students regardless of family income. School meals were made universally free to all students in response to the pandemic, but this fall most schools went back to a three-tiered system in which, depending on family income, students eat for free, at a reduced price or pay full price. Since then, “evidence has mounted that families are struggling to absorb these costs,” the report said, particularly for families whose SNAP benefits also were cut.
In the longer term, the authors called for the reinstatement of the expanded child tax credit, which has been found to decrease food insecurity among families with kids. They also urged policymakers to increase access to healthy, affordable, culturally-appropriate food — especially among communities of color — by investing in stores in underserved neighborhoods and in programs that give SNAP recipients incentives to buy fresh produce.