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They have jobs but still need help to feed their families

By Tami Luhby, CNN

(CNN) — The mix of local residents visiting the Enfield Food Shelf in Connecticut has changed a lot in the last few years.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, many were elderly or disabled people on fixed incomes, said Kathleen Souvigney, the food pantry’s executive director for the past decade.

But now, more of the folks seeking assistance are working families who are struggling to make ends meet as their cost of living skyrockets. Paying for child care, housing, cars, heating and other basic needs doesn’t leave enough money these days for food, which has also risen sharply in price, Souvigney hears time and time again.

“Most of the new folks are working families,” she said. “Many of the jobs aren’t paying enough to take care of expenses and put away a little savings. It now seems that one unexpected expense tips people’s finances.”

Although the US economy is strong by many measures, millions of Americans still can’t afford to buy enough food for themselves and their families. The share of people turning to hunger relief programs remains higher than it was prior to the pandemic.

Just over 1 in 10 adults — more than 23 million people — live in households where there was either sometimes or often not enough food to eat over the past week, according to the US Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse Survey, which was taken in March. In Connecticut, where the median income is higher than the US median, the share is closer to 1 in 8.

The runaway inflation that began in 2021 has slowed, but prices remain far higher and continue to put a tight squeeze on wallets. Groceries cost about 33.5% more than they did at the start of the pandemic, according to Datasembly’s Grocery Price Index, which tracks prices in more than 150,000 stores nationwide.

While jobs are plentiful and wage increases finally surpassed inflation last year, the paychecks aren’t proving fat enough for many folks. What’s more, many of the pandemic supports that helped keep Americans afloat — including the enhanced child tax credit, a hiatus on student loan payments and more generous food stamp benefits — have expired.

“It’s a tough environment for people,” said Jason Jakubowski, CEO of Connecticut Foodshare, the state’s food bank, which partners with more than 600 food pantries, meal programs and mobile distribution sites that served more than 40 million meals in the last fiscal year. “We’re at a point where the need is about the same as it was at the peak of the pandemic.”

Greater need

Even though Khamphay Khen works full-time as a supervisor at a distribution company and has a part-time position as an assistant technician at a fast-food restaurant, he still has trouble affording all the needs of his family of six.

So he’s been visiting the local Enfield pantry since 2021 to pick up meat, pasta, spaghetti sauce, bread, cereal and fruits and vegetables. Initially, he went every two weeks, but now the 48-year-old drops by weekly as his expenses have grown — even though he’s received generous raises from his main employer in recent years.

“The need is greater. Costs are still high. Gas prices are high. Owning a home is a struggle,” said Khen, who recently had to shell out $1,400 to get new tires, replace the starter and do other repairs on his 2005 Honda Odessey. “Every time I look at my bank account, it’s always going down.”

The pantry helps keep his grocery bills in check, saving him an estimated $30 to $50 a week, so he has the funds to spend on other necessities for himself and his family. Khen is also trying to sock away money because he has muscular dystrophy and knows he won’t be able to work as much in the future.

Khen, who consider himself on the lower end of middle class, never thought he’d need to visit a food pantry because he’s worked since he was a teenager.

“I’m in a good spot, but not a great spot,” he said.

The Enfield Food Shelf serves between 300 and 400 households a week. In addition to food, the nonprofit also provides other items, such as clothing, laundry detergent, diapers and pet food.

Like most other pantries, Enfield saw a surge in people seeking help when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. But the demand has not abated – in part because many pandemic relief programs have expired.

When a special food stamps enhancement ended nationwide in March 2023, recipients’ monthly benefit shrank by about $90, on average. Since then, Enfield has seen a 20% jump in households seeking assistance, bringing the total to 1,126 who visit the pantry.

“People are trying to stay within their budget at the grocery store, but it’s just not enough food to feed their family,” said Souvigney, noting that most shoppers come three times a month.

Food banks around the country are also experiencing greater demand. About 75% of food banks reported seeing an increase in the number of people served in February compared to a year earlier, according to a recent survey from Feeding America, a national network of more than 200 food banks and more than 60,000 partner agencies, food pantries and meal programs.

About one in six adults said their households had received charitable food last year, up from nearly one in eight in 2019, according to an Urban Institute report.

In addition to rising prices, another pressure for many middle class families is that their wages have not kept up with inflation as well as the pay of their counterparts at the bottom and top of the income ladder, said Chloe East, a visiting fellow at The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. That’s one reason why working Americans are turning to food pantries.

“Even though there are a lot of jobs available, and the unemployment rate is low, we’re seeing food insecurity increasing,” said East. “And now food insecurity is just as bad as it was in the first few months of the pandemic.”

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