The United States’ inflation rate recently hit a new 40-year high of 8.3 percent. The last year that the country experienced an inflation rate that high was in 1982, the year that the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) opened its doors.
Today, TASK faces a hunger crisis not unlike the kind that we faced in 1982. Preceded by the first global pandemic of our lifetimes – during which TASK expanded its reach to a total of 36 meal sites and increased its meal production by roughly double our pre-pandemic rates – as well as unprecedented inflation driven by conflict in Europe, continued supply chain issues and new COVID variants have made hunger a serious problem for so many.
The cost of food today is, on average, 8.8% higher than it was a year ago. Items like beef and poultry have risen nearly double that. The USDA predicts these costs will continue to rise. In addition, supply chain issues have made food availability unpredictable, which is felt even more sharply in “food deserts” like Trenton.
In addition, gas prices have surged to hover around $5 a gallon, with JP Morgan recently predicting we could see $6 a gallon by August.
Add to this mix dramatic increases in rent in Trenton (where the vast majority of residents lease) and the looming end of many emergency pandemic benefits, current conditions create the perfect recipe to push people to seek assistance with food. The “new hunger crisis” has arrived.
The record inflation we’re experiencing costs the average household $327 more each month. What some of us might feel as a pinch is felt more like a punch to those we serve. This pinch-punch impact of inflation feels
much like a regressive tax that actually costs lower-income households a larger percent of their income than those in higher-income brackets. We tend to talk about inflation as a single number, but it does not have a singular impact; inflation is affecting each household differently, depending on their circumstances, family makeup and age.
At TASK, we have seen firsthand the effects of inflation as we talked to those waiting in line at our most recent drive-thru food distribution in April, the fifth conducted in partnership with fellow nonprofit Rise during the pandemic. What we saw was the largest distribution to date: more than 1,900 households received a total of 100,000 pounds of food and groceries. Cars lined up hours before the event began, jamming traffic in both directions. We distributed every last piece of food in a mere 2.5 hours. The need was unprecedented.
Mary, a 75 year-old grandmother who works part-time, waited in line with her husband. She said that she has “never had to seek outside help before. I have always managed to make do with what I had, but just can’t do it anymore. My weekly food bill is increasing by leaps and bounds. And my gas costs are way up. We can’t make it anymore. These extra groceries will enable us to feed our grandkids and pay the rent.”
There is no question that high inflation tends to worsen inequality because it hits low- and middle-income households hardest. These same households are likely to face even more pain soon, perhaps as early as this July, when the US Government is expected to end pandemic relief SNAP benefits, if they determine that the health emergency no longer exists. Most low-income working families will lose $82 a month. For seniors receiving the minimum SNAP benefit, their monthly allotment will decrease from $250 to $20 a month. Experts worry an impending “hunger cliff” could affect millions nationwide.
It is also important to note that local charities like TASK are not immune to the impact of inflation. At TASK, the cost of purchasing food for meals, paper products and cleaning supplies has increased dramatically.
This is why it is so important that those who can weather the storm continue to support, and if possible increase their support, of local charity-based soup kitchens, food banks and food pantries on the front-line of the battle against hunger in our community. Programs like TASK’s are proven to make a difference in lifting individuals and families out of poverty, by providing not only access to food but services designed to increase self-sufficiency and improve quality of life.
Be assured that TASK will continue to be steadfast in our commitment to the people of the Trenton area. So long as we continue to receive the community’s support – through our generous donors, volunteers and valued partners – we will continue to lead the charge to fight the hunger crisis that faces our neighbors. In our 40 years, we have weathered the storm before. Together, we can – and will – continue to turn hunger into hope.