Checking the grocery bill after a trip to ACME this year would make any Philadelphian squirm. Nationwide food prices have soared over the past year and are forecasted to continue climbing in 2023. This issue affects low–income residents the most. With inflation and additional benefits through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) set to expire at the end of February, and food banks experiencing tightening of belts, food insecurity is an increasing problem for thousands of Philadelphians, especially with the anticipated increase in demand.
In Philadelphia, the Office of Homeless Services manages four programs to combat food insecurity: the State Food Purchase Program, Emergency Food Assistance Program, Emergency Food and Shelter Program, and Child and Adult Care Food Program. These programs provide food and funding to food banks and shelters, as well as reimbursements to eligible providers. Liz Hersh, the director of the Office of Homeless Services, says that food pantries are currently seeing a rise in demand due to inflation. “It’s a horrible thing not to know when your next meal is,” she says, regarding the issue of food insecurity.
Food insecurity has been an ever–increasing reality for Philadelphians over the past three years. Share Food Program, a 501(c)(3) that provides free food through partner food pantries and meal programs for individuals in need, including children and seniors, receives some of its funding through the Emergency Food Assistance Program. Share Food Program is a key safeguard against food insecurity in the Greater Philadelphia region. George Matysik, their executive director and College of Arts and Sciences graduate, explains how the increased demand for food assistance began in 2020. Matysik says that from the start of the COVID–19 pandemic, the demand for assistance was “unlike anything we’ve seen before ... March through September of 2020 was really unprecedented. And then we started to see sortof a leveling–off and a little bit of a decline throughout 2020, going into 2021. And then over the course of 2022, we started to see the need continue to rise again.”
Matysik says that since the end of 2021, there has been a consistent increase from month to month of people visiting food pantries and requesting assistance, resulting in about a 70% increase in need over the past year. He attributes much of this to inflation. Additionally, inflation is also a challenge for organizations like Share Food Program themselves, as their internal costs for food and transport increase.
This increase in need for food assistance correlates with the clear, dramatic increase in food prices. Food prices rose overall by 11.4% during 2022, marking the largest increase in consumer prices since 1979. According to the USDA, several pantry staples rose above historical averages in 2022. Fats like butter and cooking oils rose by 18.5%, poultry by 14.6%, and cereals and bakery products by 13.0%. And it's not just you; egg prices really have soared after an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza disrupted the egg supply chain, increasing their price by 32.2%. Grocery prices are predicted to increase by 7.1% over the next year. Hikes in food prices can be attributed to the Russia–Ukraine war and economy–wide inflationary pressures.
The effects of food inflation will be felt especially by those who qualify for SNAP. Since April 2020, individuals who qualify for SNAP, a monthly food stipend that can be used at food stores and farmers markets, received an extra emergency allotment. This was in the form of an additional $95 of SNAP benefits per household through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. However, February is the last month in Pennsylvania and most other states that residents can receive the additional allotment, a hard blow with rising grocery prices.
SNAP is still a valuable resource for low income individuals. Benefit amounts are predicated by income by household number. Households of one with gross monthly incomes of up to $2,266 qualify for up to $281 in snap benefits, and households of four making $4,626 can qualify for up to $939 in SNAP benefits.
College students can also tap into SNAP's measures. Studies place the percent of college students experiencing food insecurity at around 25% to 50%. This can inhibit students’ ability to learn and concentrate, and significantly impact physical and emotional health. Students enrolled in full time college have a slightly different eligibility status for SNAP, yet can receive benefits if their Expected Family Contribution based on FASFA is $0 or if they are eligible to participate in federal or state work–study. Those interested in registering for SNAP can do so online through the State of Pennsylvania’s COMPASS site or by bringing this form into a local county assistance office.
Matysik describes SNAP as the “first line of defense” in food security and the biggest source of government food assistance. He says that with the cuts to SNAP benefits, his organization is forecasted to see a rise in demand from people who depend on Share Food Program for food assistance.
Not only is it a challenge for Share Food Program to meet the needs of residents during inflation while SNAP cuts are going into effect, but the organization is seeing cuts in government funding. After a change in administering The Emergency Food Assistance Program, as much as $300,000 was carved out of funding for Share Food Program. “We’re having to do as much and in reality, much, much more due to the increase in need, with less resources coming from our local government,” says Matysik. Between less funding on a local level and the reduction of SNAP allotments, Matysik says, “It becomes more and more challenging for us to just be able to provide basic services to people … What you’re seeing is erosion of very important elements of the safety net.”
There are many ways that college students can help fight food insecurity. Matysik recommends volunteering at one of the Share Food Program’s warehouses, organizing food drives, or picking up food through Share Food Program’s Philly Food Rescue app. Food insecurity affects countless people in Philadelphia, both on and off Penn’s campus. It is important to advocate for and address this all–too–common reality.