As federal benefits end, programs like Virtua Health’s Mobile Grocery Store are working to address increased food insecurity.

Video by Jim Tuttle

Story by Meghan Hall, Robert Tann and Domenica Orellana

COVID-19, Food Security, Goods, Video
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Click the “play” icon on the image above to watch a short film about the Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store.

The following story explores how families across the country have been impacted by surging food insecurity nationwide during the pandemic, how emergency benefit programs helped stem the tide, and what might happen if they expire. It’s part of Unmasking America, an investigation of the lingering toll of COVID-19, produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

Rose Senat wound her way through a Miami supermarket, grabbing what she needed for the week ahead. Two loaves of bread. Two cartons of milk. A dozen eggs. And, of course, something to give her children. Cheetos would do.

She didn’t pay with cash, debit, or credit but with a government-issued card for food assistance. The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), issued under one of the first coronavirus response bills passed by Congress, allots money to families with children who have missed out on free school meals due to remote learning.

For families like Senat’s, the help couldn’t wait. Senat, who feeds a family of seven, said her card arrived in April, but because she did not understand how the program works, Senat did not use her benefits for three months.

“Thank God, when I activated that card, it was $1,500 … that was a blessing to us,” she said.

As COVID-19 ravaged America, hunger soared and families suffered from uncertainty over their next meal, with more than one in six households reporting food insecurity, according to the Urban Institute. Through a dramatic expansion of food assistance benefits like P-EBT, the federal government brought temporary relief to millions of Americans. But as the programs begin to end, families and experts fear a new surge of hunger.

“We’re very, very conscious to what is going to happen in the fall when some of these benefits end and we start to see a cliff effect,” said Catherine Lynn, a spokeswoman for the Greater Boston Food Bank.

As food banks prepare for another wave of hunger to strike a nation in recovery, organizations and people have become self-reliant. Small-scale gardens and low-priced farmers markets have taken root in certain communities.

But designating more federal money to people could be the best way forward, experts said, even if it comes at a cost of billions.

“Eliminating food insecurity in the United States is easy,” said Craig Gundersen, professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “All we have to do is two things: increase (nutrition assistance) benefit levels and expand eligibility.”

Last year Americans saw a glimpse of what an expanded food safety net could look like. But as cases of COVID-19 rise in many parts of the country, the federal government has not promised any further extension of heightened benefits, leaving those who have received emergency aid in a state of uncertainty.

Surviving on a safety net

Rose Senat serves dinner for her daughters, 15-year-old Bianca (left) and 8-year-old Kate. Before the pandemic, Senat said, she visited only one pantry each week. But with her husband’s hours cut and his pay reduced, she is now forced to frequent three to four pantries per week. (Robert Tann/News21)

Senat placed a still-hot plate of couscous, grilled papaya, and lentil soup on her dining table.

“Eat your food as medicine, otherwise you will need to eat your medicine as food,” she told her children’s unsure faces as they scooped up a spoonful of warm papaya.

Senat would use these essential ingredients several times before the end of the week in an attempt to stretch out what she had. Though she still relies on food pantries, her P-EBT card allows her to buy what the pantries don’t give her, such as a bag of frozen vegetables to complement her couscous.

Without the federal aid, Senat would would have found herself restricted by food prices, “but with the EBT you feel free to buy … what you want,” she said.

Across America, food-insecure households found themselves with more choices, thanks in part to a boost in benefits. Along with P-EBT, the federal government bolstered the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

Nationwide, the program saw an increase of more than 5 million recipients during the first year of the pandemic, with more than 42 million Americans enrolled as of March 2021.

The Trump administration, as part of its coronavirus response, expanded SNAP eligibility to more households and increased the monthly benefits by 15 percent.

President Joe Biden extended the heightened SNAP benefits through the end of September, but as of June, more than a dozen states have severed aid early.

Janet Burns, who is known as “Fifth Degree,” is a single mother feeding a family of four in St. Louis, Missouri. For her, the 15 percent boost in benefits proved crucial to her family’s survival.

“If you want to get actual healthy food, it costs more,” Burns said. “So I’m more freed up to buy more healthy things now than I was beforehand.”

In March 2020, she said, she received $539 monthly. By July, as a provision of the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act signed by former President Donald Trump, her monthly benefits ramped up by $90, to $629.

The 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits dramatically expanded food security throughout the country.

Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said before the pandemic, SNAP failed to cover the cost of a modest meal in 96 percent of all U.S. counties. But with the boost in benefits, SNAP now covers that cost in nearly 60 percent of counties.

“I think that tells you the power of the 15 percent. It makes a big difference,” Waxman said.

An assortment of food is packed into boxes before distribution during an afternoon food drive at the Good News Community Food Pantry in North Miami, Florida. Following a surge in food insecurity over the past year, some pantries fear a new wave of hunger could soon hit. (Robert Tann/News21)

Still, Burns’ boosted benefits only sustain her and her three children — ages 18, 16, and 10 — for part of the month.

“I kind of have to scrape for the last week,” Burns said.

With less income, Burns decided to stop spending money out-of-pocket on food. Her only source of income comes from her work as a tarot consultant. She reads clients’ tarot cards via Facebook Live, which brings in about $700 a month. To carry her family through the pandemic, Burns has relied on pre-made school meals, food pantries, and SNAP.

Across the country, federal aid also came in the form of unemployment benefits and stimulus checks. But for those who did not receive targeted food assistance like SNAP or P-EBT, money for food quickly dried up.

Food was “honestly, probably like one of the second or third priorities. It’s definitely bills, car payments, phone bills, internet bills,” said Calsie Sockyma, who lives in Tuba City, Arizona, and who received two stimulus checks. “It would be like maybe $200 … left over for a month of food.”

Sockyma and her mother, Joyce Kaye, both Hopi Tribe members, live on neighboring reservations in northeast Arizona. Even before the pandemic, the two struggled with how and when to eat. With only one grocery store in a community of 8,600, Sockyma and Kaye have to drive at least an hour to the larger cities of Flagstaff or Page for supplies.

Sockyma is vegetarian, and Kaye is vegan. With a commitment to eating natural foods, the two have a hard time finding fresh produce, a problem Sockyma said SNAP could help eliminate.

Though she has tried repeatedly, Sockyma has been unsuccessful in applying for SNAP benefits. Sockyma lost her job at Buffalo Wild Wings early into the pandemic and received unemployment benefits soon after. She lost that assistance this March.

“I was probably unemployed for about a month and a half without benefits. It was very stressful. I have a car that I have to make payments on that I depend on using to get me to places,” Sockyma said. “And also like, what am I going to do for food?”

Senat, the mother in North Miami, turned to food banks.

While she used to visit food banks once a week, she said after her husband’s pay got cut, she started making three or four trips every week to feed her family.

Longer lines and less food

Volunteers at Glory Temple Ministries in North Miami, Florida, load families’ trunks with produce, rice and canned foods. (Meghan Hall/News21)

Every Wednesday at 7 a.m., drivers line up in cars and trucks on the streets outside of Good News Community Food Pantry in North Miami, Florida, for a food distribution that will not start for another eight hours.

As the day drags on and the humidity rises, families awaiting food swing their legs out of open car doors. If drivers keep their cars running with air-conditioning, the cars would run out of gas before the pantry’s gates opened. In the afternoon, Senat drives up in her red Toyota Camry.

“Sometimes the line is long, and my car doesn’t have enough gas,” Senat said.

On those days, Senat said she goes home, hoping the line will be shorter later in the day. Sometimes when she returns, there’s no more food left.

Food banks affiliated with Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, fought to meet demand across the country during the pandemic. Ultimately, small food pantries and partners bore the brunt of that reality.

Dorise Berrouet, founder of Good News, helped Senat’s family before the pandemic. But as the need skyrocketed, Berrouet saw more than four times the number of families — at times nearly 500 people every week — at her door.

“It was very, very difficult to find food to feed all those people that were coming in,” Berrouet said. “We had to close our gate because we didn’t have any food to feed them.”

Lynn, the Greater Boston Food Bank spokesperson, said the food bank used to operate on a first-come, first-served basis for its appointments. But as the pandemic plunged millions into food insecurity, larger organizations filled up more appointments, leaving smaller partners unable to request food despite heightened demand.

“We sort of overnight had a situation where there were some larger agencies like American Red Cross, Catholic Charities — huge multi-service agencies — who were coming in every single day, some multiple times a day, because they had the capacity to do so. And then it sort of boxed out some of the smaller agencies who just couldn’t get an appointment,” Lynn said.

Berrouet said the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which helps to supply food banks, only provided her about two-thirds of the food supply she received prior to the pandemic. At times, one of her major suppliers, Feeding South Florida, a Feeding America affiliate, did not have food to offer her. Some families who came to Good News left empty-handed.

“To turn people away, it breaks my heart,” Berrouet said.

Ronae Cambridge, pastor of Glory Temple Ministries in North Miami, Florida, said at the pandemic’s height, lines for her food pantry stretched over 25 blocks, and her pantry fed 1,000 to 1,200 families each week. But as demand grew, supply slowed.

“At one point in time, it was like a month or two, nobody seemed to have any food that we knew of,” Cambridge said. “Major food banks were running low on food, and we just didn’t have it.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Feeding South Florida received federal funds for food-assistance programs, according to spokesperson Sari Vatske. When that ended in December, Vatske said, the organization faced a “commodity cliff.”

“During the height of the pandemic, we were distributing anywhere on average from 14 to 17 million pounds of food per month. And now we’re back down to pre-COVID levels of 6, 7 million pounds,” Vatske said.

That food supply does not meet the needs of South Florida’s community, Vatske said.

As pressure mounts on food banks to feed what they predict will be an influx of families as federal assistance runs out, some Americans have adopted small-scale solutions to the food crisis.

Imperfect solutions

Tiffany Taylor sits behind the counter inside a converted St. Louis Metro bus, chatting with each customer. A rainbow assortment of fruits and vegetables lines each wall, meant to nourish a neighborhood.

“Our greens are on sale this week,” Taylor reminds each person who walks in. “Don’t they look good?”

Taylor sits at her perch inside the bus for two hours at the O’Fallon YMCA each Friday, cashing out community members and encouraging them to spend enough to earn a stamp on their loyalty cards.

“Do you have your card?” she asks customers. “If you fill it, you get $10 off!”

The Metro Market bus sells produce and cooking staples like coconut oil and butter at wholesale. Though it had to cease in-person operations for much of the pandemic, it reopened its doors in May and even added new stops in a continued push to feed St. Louis families.

The executive director, Quinton Ward, said the market offers access to nutritious options for families in what he calls a “food swamp.”

“When I say ‘food swamp,’ we’re talking about places where it’s not necessarily that there’s just no food,” Ward said, “but the options that are available are not healthy, are not conducive to a good quality of life.”

Shakira Nasiruddin, who shops at Metro Market, said fresh food is hard to get in some neighborhoods in St. Louis.

“There’s so many of us who want to get back to our roots and cook fresh food, but we don’t have access to it,” Nasiruddin said. “Frozen food and all of the canned stuff, we just don’t want them.”

In more rural areas, food is even more difficult to come by.

Tucked behind the red Navajo sandstone cliffs of Moenkopi, Arizona, lies a small but fertile land of crops. Here Kaye, the Hopi native and mother of Sockyma, is growing what she can.

Calsie Sockyma reaches for an apricot on a plot of land her mother farms in Moenkopi, Arizona. Sockyma and her mother have turned to farming as a way to eat healthier in a food desert. (Robert Tann/News21)

I’m “very happy, because I can grow, I can grow,” Kaye said as she pointed to a patch of blue corn, the sprouts noticeably taller than the day before.

Kaye and Sockyma are learning to live off their land. Kaye cares for patches of land her father owns. For the two, farming has both allowed them to secure fresher foods and connect more to their past.

“I noticed that we become … dependent on the grocery stores and our transportation to get us fresh food,” Sockyma said. “We kind of lost those traditions and those cultural practices, especially for the youth.”

But, experts said, growing produce in backyards is not the path to feeding America in a post-pandemic world.

“I have not seen those able to meet the scale of the problem, the ways in which our federal nutrition programs are able to do,” said Allison Bovell-Ammon, policy director at Children’s Health Watch in Boston. “We know that the local community gardens and even urban farms or other things really cannot produce the resources at scale that we need in order to fully solve the problem of food insecurity.”

Gundersen, the agricultural and consumer economics professor, said while the policies of the Trump and Biden administrations quelled a rise in hunger, the programs do not go far enough to ensure lasting change.

A study by Craig Gundersen at the University of Illinois proposes that the government permanently increase SNAP benefits by 25 percent — a 10-percentage-point increase from pandemic-era levels — and further expand eligibility to reach even more families straddling the poverty line.

“Let’s not look at COVID as a one-off, but instead look at it like these are problems before COVID — they’ll be problems after COVID if we don’t do something,” he said.

The Biden administration, coming off the heels of its $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, has pledged to revise the Thrifty Food Plan, the system for determining SNAP eligibility. The administration has said the criteria are out of date with today’s rising food prices. A review could see a new increase in benefits as soon as October 1, a day after the 15 percent boost in benefits is slated to end.

“I think the pandemic has allowed us to see what a future could look like,” Waxman, the Urban Institute fellow, said.

But as benefits begin to fall off, families in need know it’s a future they may not see.

Kaye and Sockyma said leaving their reservations would mean access to better food options. But it will take a reserve of money they do not yet have.

Senat, the mother in North Miami, knows when her P-EBT runs out, she’ll see a summer of hungry children and less food in the fridge.

Burns, the tarot card reader in St. Louis, will be faced with hard choices of what to buy once she loses her extra $90 in monthly SNAP money.

“I’m broke,” Burns said. “I don’t have the steady income I had before everything took place.”

With other bills to pay, Burns said she doesn’t know what she will do when her SNAP benefits shrink.

“Them dropping back down? Oh, that would be hell.”

Disclosure: Virtua is a customer of findhelp, the public benefit corporation that created resolve magazine.