Personal Finance

'This can't wait.' Why long food lines signal need for more coronavirus stimulus aid

Key Points
  • An estimated 12% of U.S. adults have recently experienced some type of food shortage, according to recent research.
  • Households that are more likely to be short on food include those with children.
  • While emergency nutrition benefits are available, strengthening unemployment protections through another coronavirus stimulus bill would be more effective, experts say.
Texas food bank has to ration food to help hungry
Texas food bank has to ration food to help hungry

Ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, a temporary drive-through to distribute food to those in need was set up near Lancaster, California, north of Los Angeles, on Tuesday.

At least 2,000 families went through the line in a three-hour period, according to a rough estimate from Michael Flood, president and CEO of Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.

The food the organization is distributing currently reaches approximately 900,000 people per month through its work with 700 partner agencies, Flood said. That's well above the 350,000 people per month it was serving before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

"If you told me in January, your distribution is going to increase 145% and you'll be reaching 900,000 people per month by the fall, I would have said, 'I don't think so,'" Flood said.

"But that's what's happened."

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From California to New York, pictures have emerged of thousands of people waiting to receive groceries from their local food banks ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

It's one side effect that has cropped up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic that continues to sweep the nation. Experts say the problem is rooted in high unemployment and low cash flow.

Almost 26 million adults said their households either sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the prior seven days, according to a survey conducted between late October and early November. Those affirmative responses account for 12% of all U.S. adults, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive Washington, D.C., think tank.

Pre-pandemic, just 3.7% of adults said they had not had enough to eat at some point during all of 2019.

Children are often the most affected by the recent increases in food insecurity, the research found.

Some unemployment recipients face big overpayment bills
Some unemployment recipients face big overpayment bills

When asked if their household didn't have enough to eat, 16% of those with children said yes compared to 9% of those with no kids.

Black and Latino households were more likely to be affected.

The biggest culprit for the increased hunger is rising unemployment, said Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"Certainly the loss of a job or a significant loss of hours can significantly impact a family's ability to purchase food," Bolen said.

The food lines popping up around the country are mostly tied to the spikes in coronavirus cases and subsequent job losses.

In many communities, food banks saw demand spike when the extra $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits expired over the summer, Bolen said.

We're fearful that a lot of folks are going will lose a significant part of their support if Congress doesn't act to extend them or do something.
Ed Bolen
senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Now, unemployment provisions put in place through the CARES Act that extended benefits and enabled more people to receive jobless checks are set to expire in December. Meanwhile, more people could face evictions as protections for renters run out.

"We're fearful that a lot of folks are going will lose a significant part of their support if Congress doesn't act to extend them or do something," Bolen said.

At the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, demand for food has been steady. And while that's expected to stay the same in November and December, that could change.

"We're kind of bracing ourselves for an awful January and increased demand even beyond these unprecedented levels," Flood said.

"If something doesn't get done in D.C., I think we're just going to see another wave of need and increased demand for food."

Where people can turn for help

People wait in line at a food bank in the Borough Park area of Brooklyn, New York, Sept. 25, 2020.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

While certain federal protections are set to run out, the good news is that emergency assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will continue.

Because we are in a national emergency, SNAP has increased the allotments people receive, and are not in danger of running out the way unemployment benefits are, Bolen said.

Still, SNAP benefits tend to be smaller and not as well targeted, so there is room for improvement from Congress, Bolen said.

For example, those with low to no income may not have received a SNAP benefit increase, he said.

"We think it can be improved so the poorest households can get a benefit boost," Bolen said.

Others, like college students or single individuals, sometimes don't qualify for the program.

Sources like food banks and churches can be great places to turn to for immediate help. But SNAP benefits can provide more sustainable support than a couple of bags of groceries from a food bank, Bolen said.

Plus, food banks may experience their own shortages depending on what is happening in their local economies.

"The fact that they have much larger demand doesn't mean the supply increased at all," Bolen said.

SNAP households currently receive about $246 per month on average. Per person, that breaks down to about $125 per month or $1.39 per person per meal.

In most states, people can apply for SNAP benefits online. The turnaround on those applications can vary, but states are generally required to process them within 30 days.

How to help solve the problem

This year, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank had support from the National Guard for the first time since it was founded in 1973. In May, 50 National Guard members were on site five days a week to help sort food and make emergency boxes for families.

"That was huge for us," Flood said.

Today, the guard is still there, though in smaller numbers.

The organization still accepts volunteers and donations. People can also help by urging Washington lawmakers to extend the CARES Act provisions that expire in December, Flood said.

"That's going to hit all of these folks that are just hanging on right now," he said. "This can't wait until February with the new administration.

""It really needs to happen."

If you're not in need, but still want to help, contacting your local food bank still makes sense, Bolen said. You can search for a food bank near you at

Even if you're not comfortable volunteering in person, you may be able to help people over the phone or by donating money.

Ultimately, more help needs to come from Congress as soon as possible, Bolen said.

"The lack of action is really distressing, because people who are close to the edge are getting no help at all," he said.