Food insecurity is skyrocketing in Montana, caused by a of high rates of unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic and made worse by rising food prices.
The cost of preparing food at home in May 2020 was nearly 5 percent higher than in May 2019, burdening households who had been living on limited incomes and those suddenly facing unemployment. With meat-processing plants shutting down across the country, the price of meat has especially risen sharply in the United States. Meats, poultry, fish, and eggs are 10 percent more expensive than they were a year earlier.
This sharp rise in food prices places even greater pressure on households who are struggling with a sudden drop in income, creating rising rates of food insufficiency. The most recent estimates from mid-May show that 1 in 3 households in Montana did not have enough to eat, or did not have enough of the kinds of food they wanted to eat, in the last week. With people experiencing job and income loss, fewer trips to grocery stores, product shortages, and increasing prices, many households have not been able to afford or obtain what they normally would eat.
Households with children face significant barriers to food security and are faring even worse – 2 out of every 5 households experienced food insufficiency the last week of May. With children out of school across the country, many have not had access to regular school breakfasts and lunches. School meal programs have been handing out food to-go, but not all families have been able to travel to meal distribution sites multiple times a day.
Even as Montana reopens, food insecurity will likely worsen over the coming year. Feeding America projects childhood food insecurity in Montana will be as high as 26 percent in 2020, up from 16 percent in 2018. Some counties will see even higher rates of childhood food insecurity. Many Montanans, especially those living in rural areas, already have limited access to economic opportunity. Childhood food insecurity could be as high as 41 percent in Mineral County. Even the county with the lowest projected rate (McCone County) will likely see as many as 1 in 5 children experiencing food insecurity in the coming year.
Counties with high percentages of American Indians are also projected to have high rates of food insecurity. Colonialism dismantled tribal food systems and suppressed economic opportunities, creating conditions where crises such as the COVID-19 public health emergency further exacerbate preexisting disparities. Counties with high percentages of American Indian populations had high child food insecurity rates prior to COVID-19 and remain some of the highest rates in the state in 2020. Big Horn County and Glacier County are projected to see childhood food insecurity rates as high as 37 to 39 percent, respectively.
Changes to social safety nets have yet to sufficiently address the impact of rising food prices on food insecurity. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act allowed states to issue emergency SNAP allotments, which allowed all households to receive the maximum SNAP benefit. Unfortunately, 40 percent of SNAP households – those with very little or no income – already received the maximum benefit, and did not receive any increase in SNAP benefits. Without an increase to benefits, people will struggle to feed their families as everyday staples are more expensive.
State and federal policymakers are considering additional measures to address food insecurity. In order to combat rising food prices, Congress should make raising the SNAP maximum allotment by 15 percent a top priority. A 15 percent increase would amount to an additional $25 per person per month, or $100 for a family of four.
Montana can also directly address childhood food insecurity caused by the early closures of schools. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act created Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), which gives states the option to provide electronic benefits to children who would normally be receiving free- and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches, equivalent to the amount of the federal reimbursement rate for these meals. The benefits are retroactive, and families in Montana could receive (depending on the length of their school closure) approximately $300 per child. As of June 10th, 42 states including Washington, D.C., have been approved for P-EBT. Montana has until June 30th to be approved for P-EBT.
Our policymakers must act quickly to address the food insecurity caused by rising food prices and widespread unemployment. Failure to act quickly will further delay economic recovery, and put the health and well-being of thousands of Montanans at risk.