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A new era of hunger has hit the US

The Financial Times logo The Financial Times 21/09/2020 Patti Waldmeir
a man standing next to a car: A volunteer hands out bread to a resident of San Antonio in Texas. Hunger relief organisation Feeding America forecasts a ‘meal gap’ of 8bn meals over the next year © Provided by The Financial Times A volunteer hands out bread to a resident of San Antonio in Texas. Hunger relief organisation Feeding America forecasts a ‘meal gap’ of 8bn meals over the next year

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot grew up with an extraordinary 107 siblings (foster, adoptive and biological). That taught her a lot about the long-term impacts of food shortages on children.

Her parents were included in America’s Adoption Hall of Fame for raising so many children, although usually only 16 were at home at any one time, says Ms Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive of Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger relief organisation in the US.

“I have so many siblings who struggle to this day, and their struggles started out with lack of access to food,” she says. “They fuel me in my work”. The coronavirus pandemic has vastly expanded that work, as the number of Americans in need has shot up. Despite living in a country that produces enough food to feed everyone, many Americans have found themselves hungry for the first time in their lives, she says.

I started my Financial Times career covering famine in Africa in the 1980s. I did not expect to be writing about hunger in my own homeland 40 years later. But as America finishes its sixth month of coronavirus chaos, queues of hungry New Yorkers stretch a quarter of a mile outside a food bank in Queens and food giveaways provoke traffic jams that can last for hours.

Ms Babineaux-Fontenot provides some shocking numbers. “I hope I’m wrong, but if I’m not”, she says, an extra 17m people in the US could be “food insecure” in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. That would make a total of 54m, according to Feeding America’s calculations, up from 37.2m before the crisis. And 18m, or one in four, of those hungry people will be children.

Every community is affected: about a mile down the road from the affluent Chicago suburb where I live, 70-year-old Jorge Lopez lined up on a stifling late summer’s day to pick up a takeaway hot lunch provided by A Just Harvest, a Chicago-area charity, which grows some of the food in its own garden. Mr Lopez is a diabetic, and says the stove in his rental apartment has not worked “in about three years”.

“I’m very tight with my pension cheque,” says the retired city parking enforcement officer. “I cannot afford to go to the grocery store,” he says, partly because his diabetes medications cost $600 a month, of which he must pay $100 out of pocket, “which is hard considering my income. Sometimes I get a bit desperate”.  

A Just Harvest says it is struggling too: it cannot safely bring in volunteers, so staff must be paid to do jobs that were previously taken care of for free; donations of food and money are down and charity runs and other fundraisers cannot go ahead because of the pandemic.

Mr Lopez has been using the charity for two years already, but, Ms Babineaux-Fontenot says, “40 per cent of those coming to us now have never come for food aid before”. US federal stimulus cheques of $1,200 and unemployment payments of $600 a week appeared to help for a while, she says, noting that a 70 per cent year-on-year surge in food charity demand in April eased to 50 per cent after the payments began. But by the end of July the rate had crept up again to 59 per cent — and that figure did not yet reflect the impact of the expiration of $600 weekly federal unemployment at the end of the month.

They come for all sorts of reasons. Felicia Sue Kaplan, who says she is “in my sixties”, lives on Chicago’s north side. She had never used a charity food pantry before the coronavirus pandemic hit, but now she goes to a local church for no contact, drive-up groceries on Wednesday nights “mainly because I don’t feel safe going to the grocery”.

Ms Babineaux-Fontenot forecasts a “meal gap” of 8bn meals over the next 12 months, unless more money is provided for people in need. Food prices at a 50-year high will make it even harder to fund those meals, she says. And, with most volunteers over the age of 65, and thus at higher risk if infected with Covid-19, shortages of volunteers and donated food are becoming a bigger problem.

But her bigger worry is the long term: after the last financial crisis “it took us 10 years to return to pre-recession rates of food insecurity. So it could take us 10 years to get out of this crisis”. And she, of all people, knows the toll that can take on a generation of America’s children.

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