ASHRAF KHALIL and CEDAR ATTANASIO, Associated Press
Many Americans who struggled to feed their families over the past year of the pandemic said they struggled to get help and struggled to find healthy foods they can afford.
A survey by Impact Genome and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 23% of Americans say they are not getting enough to eat or getting the kind of food they want. Most of those facing food problems participated in a government or nonprofit food aid program in the past year, but 58% still had difficulty accessing at least one service.
And 21% of adults who struggled to meet their nutritional needs were unable to get help at all. The most common challenge for those in need has been a fundamental lack of awareness of eligibility for both government and nonprofit services.
The survey results paint a big picture of a country where hundreds of thousands of households were suddenly plunged into food insecurity due to the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. They often had to navigate the intimidating bureaucracy of government aid programs and had limited knowledge of local boards or other charitable options available.
Black and Hispanic Americans, Americans living below the state poverty line, and younger adults are particularly likely to face nutritional problems, according to the survey.
Americans who find it difficult to afford food also feel less secure than others about their ability to get healthy food. Only 27% say they are “very” or “extremely” confident, compared to 87% of those who have no food challenges.
For housewife Acacia Barraza in Los Lunas, a rural town outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, the challenge was finding a steady supply of fresh fruits and vegetables for her 2-year-old son while keeping the family budget.
Barraza, 34, quit her job as a pre-pandemic waitress when her son was born. She considered going back to work, but the constant lack of childcare in the wake of the pandemic made it impossible, she said. The family lives on her husband’s salary as a mechanic while they are supported by SNAP – the government program commonly known as grocery stamps.
Despite government aid, Barraza said she is still looking for affordable sources of fresh vegetables and actively combing local markets for bargains like a bag of fresh spinach for $ 2.99.
“If we don’t always have vegetables, he won’t want to eat them in the future. And then I worry that in the future or now he will not be getting enough vitamins from vegetables for his growing body. So it’s really hard. It’s just really hard, ”she said.
Even those who did not lose income during the pandemic will have to stretch their food dollars at the end of the month. Trelecia Mornes, of Fort Worth, Texas, works as a telephone customer service representative so she can work from home without interruption.
She makes too much money to qualify for SNAP but not enough to support the family.
She decided to do distance learning at home with her three children over fear of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, so school lunch was removed from the equation. Their job responsibilities prevent them from picking up free lunches offered by the school district. She looks after her disabled brother, who lives with them and receives SNAP benefits. But Mornes said $ 284 a month “takes about a week and a half”.
They’re trying to eat healthy, but budget considerations sometimes lead to prioritizing cost and longevity with “canned soups, maybe noodles – things that last and aren’t that expensive,” she said.
Radha Muthiah, president of the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, said the struggles reflected in the poll are evidence of a new phenomenon that the pandemic has brought with it: families with no experience of food insecurity are suddenly in need, without Knowledge of charitable options or experience navigating government aid programs.
“It’s all new to her,” she said. “Many individuals and families – especially those new to food insecurity – are unaware of their options.”
Many are suspicious of participating directly in government programs like SNAP and WIC – the parallel state food aid program that helps mothers and children. Muthiah said the reluctance often stems from either frustration with the paperwork or among immigrant communities for fear of jeopardizing their immigration status or green card applications.
The survey shows that overall, around one in eight Americans regularly get their food from convenience stores, which typically sell less nutritious foods at higher prices. This experience is more common among Americans faced with food challenges, with about 1 in 5 convenience stores visiting.
Reliance on convenience stores is a particularly worrying dynamic, Muthiah said, as options there are both more expensive and generally less nutritious. Part of the problem is just habit, but a much bigger problem is the lack of proper grocery stores in “food deserts” that exist in poorer areas of many cities.
“Sometimes they’re the only quick and efficient way to get food for many people,” she said. “But they don’t get the full range of products they need in a convenience store and that has many negative health consequences.”
The survey shows that half of Americans facing food problems say they need extra money to pay for food or bills to meet their food needs.
Few consider reliable transportation or enough free groceries for a few days, such as in emergency food packs or free prepared meals in a soup kitchen or school, to be essential resources to meet their grocery needs, although the majority say it would help.
Gerald Ortiz, of Espańola, New Mexico, bought a 2019 Chevy pickup truck before the pandemic and then lost the office job he held for 20 years. Now he’s struggling to pay the $ 600 monthly payment and getting by through charity and simply eating less. His unemployment benefit ended this month.
“I make sure my truck payment goes through,” Ortiz said as he sat in a row of about 30 cars waiting to collect food from a charity, Barrios Unidos, in nearby Chimayó. “After that I, I, only eat once a day,” he said, pointing to his stomach. “That’s why you see me, that I’m so thin now.”
He applies for multiple jobs and makes a living on charities and anything he can grow in his garden – chili peppers, onions, cucumbers, and watermelons.
“It was depressing. It was stressful and I’m scared, ”he said. “I can’t wait to get a job. I don’t care what it is right now. “
Attanasio reported from Chimayó, New Mexico. Associated Press reporter Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.