Listen: Americans Are Going Hungry

The pandemic has brought unprecedented suffering and yet, Congress hasn’t passed new relief since March. As politicians attempt to negotiate a package before the holidays, Americans are going hungry. What about our politics let the situation get so bad?

On this episode of the podcast Social Distance, staff writer James Hamblin and executive producer Katherine Wells talk with Luis Guardia, the president of the Food Research & Action Center, and the Atlantic staff writer David A. Graham.

Listen to their conversation here:

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What follows is a selection of their conversation with Guardia, edited for clarity:

Katherine Wells: What was the situation with hunger in this country before the pandemic?

Luis Guardia: We’ve certainly had a hunger problem before, though a lot of it remained unseen. There are a lot of misconceptions about who is hungry. And when COVID-19 hit, I think everybody was shocked to see how quickly things changed. Those hunger numbers just went through the roof really quickly.

We’ve gone beyond this notion of being food-insecure—in the sense of not knowing where the next meals were going to come from or [whether] they’re going to be enough. People actually started disrupting their meal patterns. People actually went hungry. Or if they didn’t go hungry, they had to make the tough decisions about maybe not paying the rent, or maybe not paying their medical bill, or maybe not paying the utility bill. The problem had come home to roost in a very sharp and incredibly fast way that we were just not anticipating.

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Wells: What kind of resources are available for people? Where do people go, and are those systems functioning?

Guardia: Unfortunately, we just haven’t had the leadership necessary to deal with food insecurity in a comprehensive way in this country. We all remember, early on in the pandemic, seeing the incredible images of miles of cars queued up outside of food banks. The food banks were quickly overwhelmed and remain overwhelmed.

There is still significant demand, but what’s heartbreaking for us at FRAC was knowing that there are solutions at hand like SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. We know from working with our friends at Feeding America, that for every one meal the Feeding America network provides, SNAP provides nine.

Wells: Is the problem that there aren’t the resources or that they’re just not getting to people?

Guardia: They need to get to people, but they also need to be increased. We know SNAP does not provide enough for people to buy a robust, nutritious diet. We know that a lot of people on SNAP have to make hard choices about stretching out those food dollars. That’s why boosting the SNAP benefit is so critically important.

The government did this very quickly in response to the Great Recession in 2008–2009. The SNAP maximum benefit amount was increased by 13 to 14 percent. What we’ve been calling for is an increase of about 15 percent.

James Hamblin: You became head of the Food Research & Action Center just before the pandemic started and have seen food insecurity increase and SNAP not meaningfully increase. What’s it been like?

Guardia: It has been exasperating. We know SNAP is effective. It rides the regular wheels of commerce. It provides a tremendous amount of work, convenience, and greater dignity for people to access food. And as economists are scratching their heads about how [we can] get the economy going again with fiscal stimulus tools, SNAP is one of the most effective stimulus tools there is. We know that for every $1 of benefit in SNAP, the economy grows $1.50 to $1.80. That’s a pretty good return on investment.

Hamblin: And why should we even have to make that argument? “It’s a good investment to have people have food”? I understand that’s the language of Washington, but it’s kind of weird that we have to do that, right?

Guardia: It’s a little bit disheartening, but we always use every tool in the toolbox. We’re hearing some positive language come from the Biden-Harris team. We’re hopeful that they can step up and show some leadership on this.