This story was originally published on Civil Eats.
Gilma Dominguez watched quietly as the grocery store clerk scanned each item, her total ticking up with each beep. She was only buying the necessities — meat, milk, beans, rice — but the numbers on the screen were higher than usual. Her heart started beating faster and her palms started to sweat. Even with her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allotment, she couldn’t afford all this food. When the clerk finally read out her total, Dominguez was breathless and sweaty. She was having a panic attack.
Dominguez has suffered three such grocery store panic attacks in the past year, as food prices have reached levels not seen in decades. And, with the holiday season in full swing, the $425 she receives each month through SNAP isn’t keeping up.
In October, SNAP recipients across the country received a 12.5 percent increase — the largest in decades — in order to account for food inflation. But with grocery store prices up nearly 13 percent since last year, families are still struggling to make ends meet.
“It’s like a bad dream,” Dominguez said in an interview in Spanish. “Every week, the prices increase and increase and increase.”
The single mom lives in Los Angeles with her son, JP, who is on the autism spectrum. He eats the same thing every day, and Dominguez says she tries not to switch up the menu to substitute in cheaper items.
“At first, the food stamps only covered two or three weeks. But now it’s the second week and I don’t have enough for the rest of the month,” she said.
Quantifying the Need
Dominguez is far from alone in the struggle to afford food. According to a November survey conducted by Propel, a financial assistance app designed for low-income Americans, one-third of respondents — most of whom receive SNAP benefits — reported eating less in the last 30 days due to budgetary constraints.
Black and Latino households consistently report higher levels of food insecurity than their white counterparts. And that’s a sign that SNAP isn’t doing its job, say anti-hunger advocates.
SNAP benefits are calculated through the Thrifty Food Plan, a mathematical model that determines the cost of a budget-friendly, balanced, healthy diet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) designs theoretical “market baskets” for different age and gender groups and uses the results to determine monthly SNAP allotments.
Some say that model is flawed. “The Thrifty [Food Plan] is the wrong thing to calibrate the benefits to,” said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). “It’s not really the right mix of products to give people a basic standard of living.”
For example, according to a 2012 FRAC report, a market basket for a family of four that year allotted “approximately 0.64 ounces of ‘frozen or refrigerated entrees’ and approximately 2.1 ounces of ‘all cheese’ — which, respectively translates to about two-thirds of a fish stick and two slices of cheese for a family of four for a week.” While the market baskets have been updated since then, Vollinger said they’re still inadequate.
The Thrifty Food Plan underwent a modernization last year, and as a result, SNAP recipients began receiving an additional $36.24 per month on average in October 2021.
“Kudos to the administration for taking this long-overdue step,” said Diane Schanzenbach, director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research. “If it weren’t for that, families would have been struggling even more.”
Now, the market baskets include mostly whole, minimally processed foods including fruit, vegetables, bread, meat, cheese, and yogurt. Relying on such ingredients can be difficult for low-income folks, who often work long hours and have minimal time to cook.
In addition, there are also fundamental flaws in the system’s design. While SNAP benefits are adjusted for inflation annually, there’s a significant lag time between calculation and implementation. For example, this year’s cost-of-living increase was calculated in June and then went into effect in October. It will stay in effect until September 2023. “That’s a long time,” Vollinger said.
In a written interview, a USDA spokesperson acknowledged that many families “have been hurting lately due to inflation and increasing food prices.” They touted the Thrifty Food Plan’s “ability to adapt in changing economic conditions,” and said the agency will re-evaluate the plan every five years.
Why Is Food So Expensive?
Getting the SNAP formula right is especially important at the moment, given the prices shoppers like Dominguez are seeing at the grocery store.
“Everything is so expensive right now. Meat, milk, beans, rice, vegetables, fruits ... all the basics,” said Dominguez. Every morning, her son eats cereal, the cost of which is up 16 percent since last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The cost of the milk for that cereal? Also up 16 percent.
There are a number of factors contributing to those unusually high numbers; chief among them are the climate crisis and the ongoing war in Ukraine. The conflict is putting the global wheat supply at risk, driving up the price of wheat and, subsequently, the price of bread, pasta, pastries, and cereals.
“[The Russia-Ukraine conflict] is equivalent to a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran when it comes to oil. That would invoke an oil crisis. In this case, it invokes a wheat crisis,” said William Spriggs, professor of economics at Howard University and chief economist for the AFL-CIO.
At the same time, climate change is wreaking havoc on growing conditions across the globe, including more intense heat waves in Europe, drought in China and flooding in Pakistan. That’s depleting the global supply of staple crops like rice and corn, and it’s impacting the entire global food supply, including meat and dairy.
“All of these things are tremendous shocks to supply. And the result is that the price of food goes up,” Spriggs said.
Meanwhile, big food companies — including Tyson, General Mills, and Cargill — are making record profits amid price hikes for their products. Prices are largely not tracking with worker wage growth, meaning companies are lining their pockets at the expense of customers.
“If, after the hurricane destroyed much of Florida this year, you swooped down and said ‘Oh, I’m taking bottled water down there and I’m going to sell it at $20 a bottle,’ we’d arrest you. Because we have regulations that prevent such price gouging,” Spriggs said. “This is no different.”
Most of these factors are not only contributing to the price of food, but to the cost of goods overall, Spriggs said. That’s stretching SNAP households’ budgets even tighter.
It’s not just food Dominguez is struggling to afford, for instance. It’s medicine, too. She is a cancer patient and Medi-Cal — California’s Medicaid — doesn’t cover all of her medications. This month, she couldn’t afford the out-of-pocket expense, so she had to forgo taking her medicine.
“I had to take time off of work because I was experiencing so much pain from skipping my medication,” she said.
Lifelines for Food Assistance Recipients
Dominguez has been visiting her local food pantry to help make ends meet. It has been helpful, she said, especially when they provide items that JP likes to eat.
She’s just one of the millions of Americans that rely on food banks and pantries every year. And due to inflation, some food banks are seeing demand return to early-pandemic levels.
At the height of the pandemic, the San-Francisco Marin Food Bank, for example, was serving approximately 60,000 households per week across northern California. That number eventually tapered off, but now the food bank is back up to serving nearly 56,000 households per week.
“We don’t ask people why they’re coming to us, but it seems pretty obvious based on that timing that inflation is hitting our folks really hard,” said Keely Hopkins, the food bank’s communications manager.
Meanwhile, the food bank is having a harder time stocking its shelves. Every year, for example, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank provides a special holiday menu for its visitors that includes things like chicken, Brussels sprouts, and sweet potatoes. This year, that menu cost the food bank 35 percent more than it had in years prior, largely driven by the price of chicken — which has doubled.
“It is something that our supply chain team is acutely aware of and definitely nervous about as we look forward,” Hopkins said.
The food bank also dedicates resources to helping SNAP recipients like Dominguez. And while Alex Danino, the food bank’s CalFresh program manager, sees SNAP as “the most effective tool to end hunger because it puts money directly into people’s pockets,” she adds that it’s not enough on its own.
There has been some momentum in Congress to (re)modernize SNAP, including the Closing the Meal Gap Act of 2021, championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Alma Adams (D-NC). The bill would move away from the Thrifty Food Plan as a basis for SNAP, using the USDA’s Low-Cost Food Plan instead. It would also increase the benefit baseline, which is now set at $23 per month, and expand access to U.S. territories including Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The bill currently has 111 co-sponsors in the House.
There have also been efforts in recent months to tamp down inflation by creating a congressional subcommittee dedicated to analyzing the costs of goods (including food) and investigating corporate gains. Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) introduced the bill, dubbed the Emergency Price Stabilization Act, in August.
For her part, Dominguez is doing what she can to bring the issue to her local politicians, including newly-elected Los Angeles mayor Karen Bass. Dominguez said food insecurity should be a top concern for Mayor-elect Bass, who ran on a platform to combat homelessness in the city.
“I’m doing everything I can to avoid ending up in a homeless shelter with my son,” she said.