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Inflation makes food insecurity top of mind for many this holiday season

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Like millions of people in the United States, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot knows what it's like to need help from a food bank.

CLAIRE BABINEAUX-FONTENOT: I found myself in law school, no money for gas, in my little beat-up Toyota Tercel hatchback and no money to eat. So I was desperate. And I turned to the local Salvation Army. I will never forget that place as long as I live. It's on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge, La. I remember what it felt like to need to go there. I was embarrassed. I had my head down. I was preparing myself, steeling myself for all of the probing questions I was about to hear when I got there. And I was really ashamed.

MARTÍNEZ: But when she walked in, she was treated with kindness and respect.

BABINEAUX-FONTENOT: The lady who did the intake, she didn't ask me any probing questions. All she wanted to know was, how could she help me? She gave me emergency food stamps that day. And she told me, if you need any more, baby, you know where to come.

MARTÍNEZ: She never had to go back.

BABINEAUX-FONTENOT: But I will never forget that I had to go that time. I'll never forget how I was treated when I went. And I will work hard to make certain that every single person who finds themselves - him, her or theirselves - in that type of circumstance, I want them to have the type of experience that I had.

MARTÍNEZ: Babineaux-Fontenot is now the CEO of Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks and food pantries. And she told me more and more people in the United States are finding themselves in those same circumstances this Thanksgiving. I asked Babineaux-Fontenot how many people in the U.S. are currently food insecure.

BABINEAUX-FONTENOT: Last estimates that were published reported 53 million people. Unfortunately, we believe that number is greater. The 53 million number reflected the decline that we saw year over year from 2020 to 2021. But our members are reporting increases that sometimes are actually higher rates of demand than they saw even in 2020.

MARTÍNEZ: And food insecurity, Claire, what does that mean exactly?

BABINEAUX-FONTENOT: Yeah, the USDA has come up with this term. And they conduct surveys and ask very specific questions. And at its core, it's really asking, do you know where your next meal is coming from?

MARTÍNEZ: What impact has inflation had on people's need for help from food banks?

BABINEAUX-FONTENOT: That is exactly what we believe is the reason for the spike. We were relieved that we were starting to see decreases in those lines. And then we started noticing that they were going up. And at that time, inflation was really heating up. We also had certain programs that were helping families that were sunsetting - COVID relief that was sunsetting. And when those things started happening altogether, we saw significant increases in demand. And those increases have sustained themselves for several months now.

For many of our members, they have never in their history seen more demand than we have right now. And I'd like to unpack what inflation means not just for people who are coming to us in need of resources, but also for us as we're trying to provide those resources. We've seen a decrease in donations year over year. I think it's because the American public thinks, you know, we've gotten past the biggest hurdles, which, unfortunately, is not true. So we have a decrease in donated food, a decrease in federal commodities that we rely on to help people who come to us as well. So that means that our members have to go out and buy more food.

So they're buying more food at a time when food costs a lot more money. So all of those tensions are really causing some significant strains on our ability to be helpful. I think the pandemic helped people to see that this is happening here. And it was happening before the pandemic, by the way. We were serving around 40 million people before the pandemic started. What's hard, I think, is knowing that, as I say, it's like the game isn't over but people are leaving the field. And there are tens of millions of people who still need help.

MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to the people that use food banks, what are some misconceptions about those people that listeners might have?

BABINEAUX-FONTENOT: One of the biggest ones I find is, somehow, people think that they don't work. And it's simply demonstrably not true. So if I could break down whom it is that comes to us in need of help, as a rule, we're talking about children. A huge portion of those who are counting on us and the work that we do would be kids, the elderly, people with disabilities. So people who do not have the wherewithal to be in the workforce rely on us to help fill in the gaps. And then people with at least one job - some of the people who are coming to us in need of resources, not only do they have one job, some of them have more than one job.

MARTÍNEZ: Someone might be living right next door to someone who is dealing with this and never know about it because, one, it's something that people, maybe, are ashamed of. And No. 2, you would think, well, where I live, there's no way anyone could be dealing with food insecurity.

BABINEAUX-FONTENOT: That's exactly right. Wherever it is that you live across this country, hunger is there. You just don't always know where it is. But it's always around us. In the richest, most ostensibly prosperous counties, there are people living with hunger. And again, there are things we can do about it. But it is true.

MARTÍNEZ: Well, thank you so much for joining us. That's Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks and food pantries. Claire, thanks.

BABINEAUX-FONTENOT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.