Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Half of American families say they fear a hungry holiday season

In Pennsylvania, 52% of households with children are “not very confident” they will be able to afford needed food over the next four weeks. In New Jersey, the number is 55%.

Volunteer Bunny Smith-Maffett, lines up food donations during a two-day drive-through Thanksgiving meal distribution for over 400 families in need at the Martha's Choice Marketplace in Norristown on Monday.
Volunteer Bunny Smith-Maffett, lines up food donations during a two-day drive-through Thanksgiving meal distribution for over 400 families in need at the Martha's Choice Marketplace in Norristown on Monday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Imani Davis knows that ramen noodles aren’t the best dinner for her 11-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.

“But some nights, that’s all there is,” said Davis, 38, of West Philadelphia. “And I make sure to eat less so they can be full.”

Unemployed and living on federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) aid, as well as on food stamps and groceries donated by programs run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Davis said that she’s been able to arrange “something nice” for Thanksgiving dinner. But now, she’s got Christmas on her mind, and, she said, “it makes me not completely confident there’ll be enough food.

“And you don’t want that feeling that your children will possibly be hungry.”

With the pandemic raging and its economic fallout damaging American families every day, Davis is one of millions worried that they may be unable to adequately feed their children during the holiday season.

As many as 12% of households with children reported that they “sometimes or often” didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days, according to an analysis released last week of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) in Washington, D.C.

Looking ahead to the next four weeks, 56% of households with children nationwide are “not very confident” they will be able to afford needed food. Nine percent said they are “not at all confident.”

In Pennsylvania, 52% of households are “not very confident”; in New Jersey, the number is 55%.

Percentages are likely higher for low-income Americans. The survey contacted about 110,000 households across all income levels this fall.

“So if you looked at the low-income subset alone,” said Joseph Llobrera, director of research for food-assistance policy at CBPP, “you’d see a higher percentage of people who are less confident they can afford to feed their families.”

As they contemplate the next month, large groups of Americans “are seeing little reason for optimism,” Llobrera said.

He added, “As we think about Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’ve not only lost the in-person ability to celebrate with all our loved ones, but for so many, the cupboards are empty.”

For infants and young children, the lack of access to good nutrition can lead directly to poorer life outcomes. School-age children who don’t get enough to eat may have more difficulty learning, which can translate to lower high school completion rates and lower earnings potential, the CBPP said.

“I’m in tears over the pain and the hunger,” said Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. “There’s so much suffering among Black, Latino, and immigrant populations. The fact that people are hungry and in lines at food banks is a massive failure of who we are as a country.”

» READ MORE: Pa. surpasses 10,000 COVID-19 deaths

Chilton said that after the House of Representatives earmarked money to follow up the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), it’s been “horrifying” that the Senate has balked at adding extra help.

“What has broken down,” she said, “is our ability to care for each other.”

Hunger, in fact, is breeding tension.

“Lines for food are forming earlier than previously,” said Pastor Tricia Neale, executive director of the Feast of Justice food pantry in Northeast Philadelphia, one of the city’s largest.

“And you’re seeing more testy behavior among some of our guests awaiting food resources. There are more arguments in line out of people’s fear of not having enough food.

“You have a perception in the community of the difficulties the next several weeks are going to show.”

» READ MORE: Bracing for a long coronavirus winter: ‘It’s a fog that surrounds us all’

Looming hard times in the next 30 days is a growing concern for Beverly Caldwell, 42, of Southwest Philadelphia, an online psychology student at Southern New Hampshire University.

Living on food stamps and Supplemental Security Income for her son, Noah, 7, who suffers hearing loss, Caldwell is a former retail worker.

“With everything going on with the pandemic, the price of food is also rising,” she said. “That’s a big worry. I’m learning to try to make do for the holidays, but it will get a little rough when I have to think about food and Christmas gifts.”

What makes things harder is that for many people, this is the first time they’re asking for food help.

“For those never in this situation before, it’s very difficult to go into a pantry,” said Suzan Neiger Gould, executive director of Manna on Main Street, an anti-hunger nonprofit in Lansdale. “And people are facing potential evictions and lockouts. We try to serve them with dignity.”

Looking into the world of food pantries during the pandemic, Hunger Free America, a national nonprofit based in New York City, released a study on Wednesday in which 11% of soup kitchens and food pantries nationwide reported that they didn’t distribute enough food to meet demand in 2020.

Further, more than 22% of feeding programs were forced to turn people away, reduce the amount of food distributed, or limit hours due to lack of resources. Just 4.8% of feeding programs reported doing the same in 2019.

“While charitable food pantries and soup kitchens struggled heroically to meet the increased demand during the pandemic,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, “they were only able to scratch the surface of the need.”

He added that only an increased disbursement in 2020 of food stamps, now known as SNAP benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, was “the only thing that truly prevented mass starvation.”

Overall, the pandemic and the attendant national economic collapse during the last eight months have resulted in an estimated 54 million people, including 18 million children, struggling with food insecurity -- the lack of enough food to sustain a healthy life.

“The most effective way to decrease poverty and hunger,” Berg said, “has been to increase the federal nutrition safety net.” He called for the Senate to increase SNAP funding by 15%.

In a second study it released on Wednesday, Hunger Free America reported on a poll of low-income Americans that showed most people living in or near poverty face multiple barriers preventing them from getting ahead.

The poll found broad consensus among low-income Americans of all races from rural, suburban, and urban areas for policies that would hike the federal minimum wage and increase spending on SNAP.

» READ MORE: An urban farm feeding the poorest part of Philly fights to stay alive and growing

Such a change would be vital, especially for children, Llobrera of CBPP said.

“Any day that passes with millions of kids not getting enough food is so much loss. Not just for now, but down the line, into the future.”