With tens of millions of Americans unemployed, it's no surprise that many are facing shortfalls when it comes to purchasing food for their families during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since February, 26% of Americans report they or a member of their household have gone without meals or relied on charities or government programs to obtain groceries, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's May health tracking poll of over 1,100 U.S. adults.
That includes about 14% of adults who say they've cut down on the size of their meals or skipped them entirely because "there wasn't enough money for food," as well as 13% who report needing to visit a food bank or pantry for supplies.
The number of people reporting that they're experiencing food insecurity, which is when you don't have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable food, is extremely high, Diane Swonk, chief economist with Grant Thornton, tells CNBC Make It.
"People don't go to a food bank for no reason. They go to a food bank when they've run out of food," Swonk, a trained labor economist, says. She adds that food insecurity is hitting children disproportionately hard. "Kids are skipping meals and not getting fed appropriate nutrition at a critical time in their lives."
For many Americans, the reason behind the "extraordinary food insecurity" in recent months is based, in part, on the fact that many have had their unemployment benefits delayed, Swonk says.
Ongoing research shows that many filing for unemployment have had to wait for weeks, if not a month or longer, to receive their benefits. Over 40 million Americans submitted unemployment claims since states began to issue stay-at-home orders and shut down businesses, according to data published by the Century Foundation. Of those, just under 27 million claims have been processed, with workers either already receiving or awaiting payment.
But the data shows that states are processing claims at a faster pace now than at the beginning of the crisis. By the end of April about 47% of workers had their unemployment claims paid, up from just 14% at the end of March. The increase is a "big improvement, but still reflects major delays in payments that have bedeviled state agencies and frustrated millions of workers," says Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a leading unemployment expert.
While unemployment benefits were processed faster in April than March, many Americans are still recovering. The Kaiser poll was fielded May 13 through May 18 and found that 13% of Americans say they've applied for or received SNAP benefits, also known as the food stamp program.
Americans who qualify can apply for SNAP through their state agency and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed by Congress in March did make it easier for states to be more flexible in granting aid. Eligibility requirements do vary by state, but typically your household has to be at or below 130% of the poverty line. For a family of three, that's a gross income of about $27,700 a year.
The program also takes into account the household net income, which is what you earn after taxes and any other deductions such as retirement contributions and health care have been taken out of your paycheck. To be eligible, a family of three typically can't have a net income above $1,778 a month, or about $21,300 a year.
Additionally, SNAP eligibility also looks at whether you have any money in a bank account that can be used to buy food. To qualify, households should have less than $2,250, or up to $3,500 if a member of the family is elderly or disabled, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
If you have a young family, you may qualify for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, popularly known as WIC. The program provides assistance to expectant mothers, women who are breastfeeding, infants and children under age 5 — and that includes access to food such as whole-grain bread, baby food, infant formula, and milk, as well as vouchers that can be used to purchase fruits and vegetables.
To qualify, you generally need to have been deemed at "nutritional risk" and have a gross household income at or below 185% of the federal poverty level. That's just over $37,000 annually for a family of three.
If you don't qualify for SNAP or other federal aid programs, and you're facing a food shortage, consider calling the USDA's National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479). Hotline staff can connect those who need food to resources in their community, as well as discuss government assistance programs.
Many times, food pantries are a good option for families who have a temporary need, since they are generally set their own requirements and many provide assistance to those who assert that they have a genuine need for food assistance, no proof of income required. In many cases, you do not have to be eligible for SNAP in order to qualify for pantry services. Churches, synagogues and other religious organizations also frequently offer free food assistance to anyone in the community, regardless of religious beliefs or income.
Plus, many of these programs may also provide assistance beyond just food, offering supplies such as personal care items, paper products, diapers and formula. And depending on the organization, you may be able to get assistance several times a month.
Feeding America, which supplies 4.3 billion meals each year through food pantries, has a helpful lookup tool that shows their network of 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries and meal programs around the country. Meanwhile the Homeless Shelter Directory and FreeFood.org, both of which provide resources for those in need, also have addresses, websites and contact information of soup kitchens, food pantries and food banks by city and state. You can also check out Little Free Pantries, which is a grassroots mini pantry movement where neighbors stock pantry items for those in need to take.
Keep in mind that many programs do require documentation to verify who you are and where you live. Generally, you need to bring a photo ID and a piece of mail that has your address, such as a utility bill. For some programs, however, you may need to complete paperwork regarding your household income, who lives with you and where your home is located. Call ahead or check out the organization's website ahead of time to determine exactly what is needed.