We are in a heightened hunger crisis. Grocery prices rose 12.4% year on year through November, according to the latest consumer price report. Prices for dairy, cereal and bakery goods climbed as much as 16% over that time. Meanwhile, food banks across the country are seeing an increase in need and scrambling to keep up with demand.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, attended the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in September. The country is taking the right steps to address food insecurity, she said. “We knew that solving hunger would not be one day, one event. It would be a journey. And I think we have a good sense of direction on what needs to happen next.”
Babineaux-Fontenot spoke with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about how inflation is impacting food security and what the government plans to do to help. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: We have talked, I don’t know, like three, four times over the past couple of years since the pandemic started about the state of hunger in America. And I wonder: Two and a half, three years on now — heading into yet another holiday season — what is the state of hunger in America right now?
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: Well, things are still tough. There are tens of millions of people who continue to turn to the charitable food system for help. We try to do the things that we can to be helpful. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a perfect storm still, where we have less food available through federal commodities. It’s far more likely today that our member food banks have to go out and purchase food, and there are still inflationary pressures on the food that they go out to purchase. There are supply chain challenges. So again, it’s tough, but man, I’m really proud of our network because no matter how tough it gets, they stick with it. And I hope that your audience will stick with us.
Ryssdal: Obviously, you and the food banks who are part of your network, your organization, depend on philanthropy, which, through the pandemic, has been reasonably strong. I do wonder, though, about the government support that you get. There was a White House conference on hunger that we talked about last time you were on, and you were going to go. I mean, do you believe you’re getting the government support that maybe you would wish to have?
Babineaux-Fontenot: Well, we certainly are not getting all of the support that we need. I feel good about the fact that, for the first time in over 50 years, the country decided to pause and really ask some important questions about why is it that people are hungry in America, and what is it that we might do to change the trends that we’ve been seeing? Even going into it, we knew that solving hunger would not be one day, one event. It would be a journey. And I think we have a good sense of direction on what needs to happen next. And the key is that we stick with this and go do the things that need to be done.
Ryssdal: Yeah. So what needs to happen next, Claire?
Babineaux-Fontenot: Well, there are a number of things that need to happen. We need to think about things like SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. We need to make certain that when people get access to these federal nutrition programs, that they’re providing people with enough resources to actually make a difference in their lives. There’s a role for the public to play in not allowing this issue to be the thing we used to talk about, but instead to stick with it until we get some meaningful, sustainable progress made. And there are certainly roles to be played for people inside communities who experience hunger. One of the key — I would call it an epiphany on my part, coming into the not-for-profit space — was how often well-meaning people in philanthropy think they have the answers, and that what communities need is for them to come in with a black box, with a suite of answers. I think a vibrant role for communities to play in charting their own courses and coming up with their own solutions and being provided with the resources they need. So that’s a lot of stuff, but it is a lot. I think we have to be comprehensive in the way that we look at these challenges.
Ryssdal: Well, look, it’s a big problem. So one hopes there will be lots of stuff. Last question, and then I’ll let you go. You mentioned meaningful and sustainable progress. What does that look like to you?
Babineaux-Fontenot: This year, I spoke about an aspiration for the whole country, that we as a country could decide and we have the wherewithal to make it happen, that by the end of this decade, that food insecurity rates were cut in half. So at the time I was speaking, food insecurity rates were at 10%. They’d never been beneath 10% since the U.S. [Department of Agriculture] started recording them. Surely as a country, we can get it to 5% or less by the end of the decade. There are certain communities who have been inordinately impacted by food insecurity, and the gap keeps widening — communities of color, rural communities, especially in the South. So we propose that we come up with plans that reduce the inordinance, if you will, the disparities in food insecurity by half by the end of the decade too. So that’s what it looks like to me. Making meaningful, sustainable progress by the end of this decade is doable. We have to choose to do it, and we have to roll our sleeves up and get it done.
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