TAMPA, Fla. - Fewer children went hungry in 2021 than in the last 20 years across the country with help from pandemic-era programs, but rising food costs are making it harder once again for families.
A new report on food insecurity from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found about 13.5 million Americans struggled to put food on the table in 2021.
The grocery check list looks a bit different for Melody Hogan this month. She shopped for her, her two children and her elderly and disabled grandmother at the Metropolitan Ministries food pantry in Tampa.
She said she hit a tough spot when her roommate abruptly moved out and her utilities were turned off. She said she’s never had to ask for help before with supplementing food.
"Now, here I am making sure do I even have enough to make sure I can get what’s in my buggy, like ‘Do I have enough to afford this?’" said Hogan.
She is one of many in Tampa Bay hit hard by rising food costs lately and now needs extra help. Metro Ministries said it has dealt with supply chain challenges getting certain food shipments in stock, like fresh produce and some proteins.
"I would say [food costs] probably doubled over the past two to three years," said Tina Brodowski, associate director of family support at Metropolitan Ministries. "You used to think about the people with the coupons right, and they would do the stacking of the coupons, and I don’t even think that exists anymore."
The good news is food insecurity went down for families with children in 2021 to 6.2% from 7.6% in 2020 and 6.5% in 2019. Nationally, trends hit a 20-year low in 2021 with 12.5% of households with children struggling with food insecurity.
"The federal government enacted several important programs to make sure that folks survive the very difficult circumstance," said Thomas Mantz, the president and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay. "As a result, you saw childhood hunger in particular reduced for the first time in many years, a reason to celebrate."
Mantz said the bad news is that’s temporary.
"The moment those programs are eliminated, and they're all eliminated now, we're going to see the rate go back up," said Mantz.
The report also found that more elderly Americans are food insecure than they were before.
"If you want to talk about an area where hidden hunger is so devastating, it's our senior population really for several reasons. First, seniors are most likely to not talk about right. They don't want to be a burden on their family," Mantz said. "The other concern that they have is when you exist on a fixed income and that fixed income doesn't change, but all your expenses do, you're in a much worse position. So, seniors, in particular, are a grave concern for all of us."
Feeding Tampa Bay said it’s helping 35 to 40% more people now than before the pandemic, totaling at least one million residents. Hogan said she’s thankful the food pantries can help.
"It can always be you. You may not realize it, and you may not think it, but it can always be you," said Hogan.
Non-profits like Feeding Tampa Bay and Metro Ministries depend on community donations as well as food programs to stock their shelves. Mantz said 1 in 4 kids don’t have enough food in our community, and about 1 in 6 adults are food insecure.