‘It’s humiliating’: US voters struggle with hunger ahead of midterms

Economy in focus: Despite rising inflation and soaring grocery prices, food insecurity is a topic few politicians are addressing

The cars started lining up at least an hour before the late shift at the Mid-Ohio Food Collective, a converted mattress factory just south of Columbus. Drivers pulled into a white tent where volunteers rolled grocery carts full of produce, meat, cake, detergent and other items toward each vehicle, efficiently loading trunks.

One volunteer, 31-year-old Danyel Barwick, directed traffic with a big orange flag. It wasn’t long ago that Barwick, a Columbus mother of four, was on the other side of the food bank equation.

“It was humiliating,” said Barwick, who lost her job during the pandemic in 2020 and, realizing she had no protein in the house and had used all her fast-food coupons, decided to visit a food pantry at a local church. “I was embarrassed and sad.”

As US voters prepare to decide control of both houses of Congress in November, millions will head to the polls while struggling to feed themselves and their families. In 2021, according to the US Department of Agriculture, more than 13m households had trouble affording enough food. And there are signs, from census data, that food hardship could be getting worse this year.

Woman holds flag by car line

Congress and President Joe Biden largely prevented hunger from getting worse during the pandemic with a series of stopgap measures that expanded benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap), fed children when closed schools suspended free lunches for the most vulnerable and helped food banks obtain groceries.

But several of those programs have ended this year and dramatic inflation has made it even more difficult to afford groceries, leaving many food banks with empty shelves and hungry Americans wondering how to make ends meet.

The Ohio collective’s warehouse was alarmingly empty before the charity dipped into its own funds to buy increasingly expensive items that previously would have been donated or provided by federal programs, said Mike Hochron, senior vice-president of communications for the group. Supply chain problems have made the problem worse: at least 80 truckloads of cereal and pasta have been canceled in the past year, he said.

“The biggest shift is we have to buy a whole lot more,” Hochron said, standing in a cavernous warehouse with shelves of crackers, soap, ground meat, papayas and other grocery items. “In some cases, our buying power is half what it was a couple of years ago.”

Woman walks past food store with food ad signs outside

Despite similar stories from food banks around the country, direct discussions about food security have been seemingly missing from many political races in battleground states, though Republicans nationally have been campaigning more broadly on inflation and the cost of living, while protecting abortion after the fall of Roe v Wade has been a key issue for Democrats.

In Ohio, for instance, hunger is not mentioned among the key issues on the campaign websites for Senate candidates JD Vance and Tim Ryan, even as they debate issues such as crime that are often caused by hunger. Neither candidate responded to interview requests.

In the Ohio governor’s race, Democratic challenger Nan Whaley has proposed a $350 (£313) “inflation rebate” for most residents, in part to pay for food. Her opponent, Republican incumbent Mike DeWine, does not mention food or hunger on his campaign site.

US politicians have a long history of ignoring hunger as a campaign issue, said Ann Crigler, a political science professor at the University of Southern California. That’s partly because it’s embarrassing and partly because they don’t know how to fix it, she said.

“People don’t want to admit there’s this big problem happening here,” Crigler said. “They act like it’s something that only happens overseas.”

The same absence is true of the campaign platforms of the Pennsylvania candidates John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz, who are locked in a tight Senate race.

Some say it’s hard to imagine hunger not being a key issue in the midterm elections, whether or not candidates are discussing it.

man in green shirt stands for a portrait

“I think people are more aware today than they were a few years ago about what’s at stake,” said the Massachusetts congressman James McGovern, who helped organize the recent White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, the first such gathering since 1969. “Food prices have gone up, fuel costs have gone up. I really do think people get it. We’ll see.”

And yet several food bank clients interviewed across the country said they either don’t plan to vote or wouldn’t take food policies into account if they did.

Kimberly Burkins, who lives in a motel in York, Pennsylvania, supplements her federal food stamps with food from the local Salvation Army, said she nevertheless doesn’t support expanding federal hunger programs.

“I appreciate the assistance, but I don’t think people should be getting free things,” said Burkins, who spent two years on disability benefits and makes just $800 (£716) a month.

The idea that hungry people would vote against their own interests is rooted in society’s broken philosophy of the “undeserving poor”, said Marion Nestle, a retired New York University professor of nutrition, food studies and public health.

“These ingrained attitudes that the poor are undeserving, that they brought it on themselves, that poverty is somehow self-inflicted, are so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that it has to be taught out of you,” Nestle said. “You have to really understand how societies work to understand why some people are poor and some people aren’t.”

Woman pushes cart full of food in a cafeteria

Some food bank clients said they understand the distinction. Josh and Misty Murray, parents of three who were waiting in a Ford pickup at the Ohio food bank, said hunger policies would be on their minds at the polls. Both state employees, they started coming to the food bank six months ago after their rent jumped by 15%.

“It’s a hit on your ego, but you do what you gotta do to feed your family,” Josh Murray said. “It was coming down to keeping the lights on or having meals.”

In Larimer county, Colorado, north of Denver, the local food bank has seen a 33% increase in visits to its brick-and-mortar pantries since January and a 67% increase at its mobile pantries, said Amy Pezzani, CEO of the Larimer county food bank. And while clients used to rely on the pantries for about a quarter of their food, many now receive nearly all their food from the charity, Pezzani said.

And while clients previously visited those pantries about once a month, they now average nearly three visits per month, she said.

“In our area, the cost of housing has increased exponentially and has increased much faster than wages,” Pezzani said. Congress should make some of the pandemic measures permanent to prevent even more hunger, she added. “We’re going to need to do more, especially if we keep seeing these increases.”

As in other battleground states, neither Colorado Senate candidate – Michael Bennet or Joe O’Dea – lists hunger prevention as a priority.

Food bank leaders and experts said they hope voters – whether hungry or not – understand the importance of their decisions in November. With a possible recession looming and Congress failing to codify some of the most effective pandemic aid programs, the upcoming elections could dramatically affect hunger in the next year.

About one-third of people without consistent access to food are ineligible for Snap benefits, said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a Northwestern University economics professor. The country needs better policies to keep hungry people from falling through the cracks, she said.

People wait under a tent with food carts

“A lot of these pandemic relief ideas have come and gone,” said Whitmore Schanzenbach, who attended the White House hunger conference. “I wish we would have kept some of them. The child tax credit reduced poverty 50%. Why didn’t we keep it?”

Lisa Ortega, 64, was forced to turn to the Larimer county food bank about three years ago when a series of health problems put her out of work. She lives in a Habitat for Humanity-built house in Loveland, Colorado, and said she hopes voters show a little empathy when they head to the polls.

“People need to look at this and change their ideas,” Ortega said. “Someday they may be in this situation where they have to go to the food bank. It happened to me.”

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