The rising-inflation blame game doesn't help Americans relying on food pantries

Rex Huppke

CHICAGOChadana Myatt feels the bite of inflation more acutely than some who read the headlines and see rising prices as an abstraction.

For Myatt and millions of other Americans living on budgets with zero wiggle room, inflation is painfully real.

She’s a single mother of two, a 13-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. When she had a job as a systems engineer for a railway company, they walked the line between getting by, sometimes turning to a food pantry for help. 

“At the end of the day, we were comfortable and we were really blessed, but if I got one bill increase, I had to make some decisions,” Myatt said. “Just making sure my kids never went hungry.”

'Everything has gone up'

She lost her job in March 2021 – pandemic-related downsizing – and is still looking for work. In the meantime, rising food prices have made the task of putting food on the table each day measurably harder, and the occasional food pantry trips that provided bridges over tight stretches are now part of her regular routine. 

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Chadana Myatt, a single mother of two, shops at the Free-N-Deed Market food pantry in the suburban Chicago village of Dolton. Myatt, like millions of Americans, has felt the impact of inflation and relies on the pantry to keep food on the table.

“I’ve actually been on the phone negotiating with different services that I have, like the internet and the gas company,” Myatt said. “I’m looking at my options. I have to cut costs all across the board. Everything has gone up, but when I talk to people who say, ‘Well it’s only $10 more a month or $20 a month,' and I’m like, ‘I don’t have that.’ ”

That’s the reality many of us miss. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released last week, grocery prices have jumped 10% over the past year. For some, that’s a frustration and a grumble in the checkout line. For families like Myatt’s, it’s a wall they can’t climb over.

“If you have $100 budget for groceries and you’re used to getting four bags, now you’re getting maybe two bags,” she said.

Food pantry demand is rising

Along with the news of inflation rates hitting a 40-year high, food pantries across the country are seeing demand swell, exacerbated not just by inflation but also by the recent expiration of the child-tax credit and the unwillingness of lawmakers to take serious steps to address poverty.

“We’re seeing the smoke and we think there’s probably fire,” said Kate Maehr, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which supplies hundreds of food pantries, including the one Myatt relies on. “I’ve got a bucket of water and a hose and somebody just cut the hose and my bucket has a huge hole in it and it’s been put there intentionally. They are deliberately sabotaging the tools. They are deliberately saying, ‘Nope, don’t put out the fire. Let it roar.’ ”

(I previously ran an annual holiday food drive in which readers donated to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.)

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Along with the news of inflation rates hitting a 40-year high, food pantries across the country are seeing demand swell, exacerbated not just by inflation but also by the recent expiration of the child-tax credit.

The expanded child-tax credit that began during the COVID-19 pandemic was allowed to expire at the end of December, and the impact was immediate. In December, that credit was keeping 3.7 million children out of poverty. In January, with the credit gone, 3.7 million additional children were living in poverty, according to Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy

'It's morally reprehensible'

“People used that money in a thousand different ways to stabilize their lives,” Maehr said. “And now they don’t have it. So they’re back to having to make trade-off decisions. There’s ample evidence that this is a strategy that can lift families out of poverty in a very direct way. I feel like Congress’ inaction is a very strong statement. Clearly children, the next generation of Americans, aren’t a priority. They’re willing to let families with children go hungry. It’s morally reprehensible.”

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In this July 28, 2021 photo, Christina Darling and her sons, Brennan, 4, left, and Kayden, 10, prepare a snack at home in Nashua, N.H. Darling and her family have qualified for the expanded child tax credit, part of President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. "Every step closer we get to a livable wage is beneficial. That is money that gets turned around and spent on the betterment of my kids and myself," said Darling, a housing resource coordinator who had been supplementing her $35,000-a-year salary with monthly visits to the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter's food pantry.

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is one of the most effective ways to protect people from food insecurity. The money is spent at grocery stores, so it’s feeding people and finding its way directly back into local economies. But again, with inflation, current SNAP benefits aren’t going nearly as far, and there’s no indication Congress plans to provide relief to families by boosting those benefits.

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Other food programs used to curb food insecurity during the early part of the pandemic – like child-nutrition waivers that gave school meal programs greater flexibility – are set to expire soon as well.

“When the pandemic hit, at least we had that feeling that people were standing with us and our neighbors,” Maehr said. “The clanging pots and pans, the people calling up and saying they wanted to help their neighbors – that gave us the feeling that we were in this together. It doesn’t fell like that right now. We have the need that we had in every moment of COVID, but now we’ve returned to the rancor, the inaction in Congress. And I’m really worried as the rhetoric heads up toward the midterms that the programs we set up to help and advocate for people in trouble are going to be red meat in this conversation. I’m sick at the thought that we are going to litigate the need to feed our neighbors.”

Pointing fingers helps no one

When it comes to inflation, lawmakers and pundits are busy casting and deflecting blame.

It’s a luxury to have time to waste pointing fingers. We’re slowly coming out of an unprecedented pandemic that turned the global economy on its ear. People around the world are dealing with inflation, not just Americans. There’s no single villain here.

In our country, we should control what we can control, and straightforward measures like the child-tax credit and SNAP benefits and enhanced school meal programs are a way to do that and help bring stability to people like Myatt and her family.

The pantry Myatt frequents in the south Chicago suburb of Dolton is called the Free-N-Deed Market. The name was inspired by a biblical quote: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

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A food pantry in the suburban Chicago village of Dolton. With rising inflation, food pantries across the country are seeing rising demand as families struggle to make ends meet.

The pantry’s founder, Nicole Scott, told the Greater Chicago Food Depository: “That’s really what I want to be able to do, is liberate people from food insecurity.”

It’s a mission we should all want to join, an infinitely better use of time than pointing fingers.

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