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How inflation affects food insecurity

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You've probably felt it over the last few months at the gas pump, the grocery store, even when shopping online. I'm talking about inflation. This past Wednesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said that inflation rose by 7% in 2021. That's the biggest increase since 1982. And it's had a big effect on food prices. According to the same report, food prices rose by half a percent in December alone.

Now, economists point to a number of reasons for these increases, including supply chain disruptions and increased demand for goods. And while everybody's feeling the increase in food prices, we want to focus on people who've been hit especially hard, people who are facing food insecurity. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 14 million households were food insecure in 2020. That's the last year that data are available. And the pandemic has exacerbated many of the factors that lead to food instability, like unemployment or reduced hours at work.

We want to get a sense of how inflation's affecting people living with food insecurity, so we called Linda Jones. She's the co-founder of Alabama Childhood Food Solutions. That's a nonprofit based in Sylacauga, Ala., that distributes food to people who need it. And she is with us now. Linda Jones, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

LINDA JONES: Well, thank you for having me. I'm looking forward to our conversation.

MARTIN: Well, me, too. You co-founded Alabama Childhood Food Solutions in 2011, along with your husband. Just as briefly as you can, could you just tell us a little bit about the people and the community that you're serving, just a little bit about, like, how much food you distribute each month, how you do your job?

JONES: Well, we started out just doing children with a backpack ministry because so many of our kids were hungry on the weekends. And we started out with 40 bags of little groceries for the kids to eat a snack on. And then we realized, you know, it's - it kept growing and growing and growing. And now we're doing about 2,000 kids a week with this backpack ministry. And shortly after we began, we realized, hey, we can feed more kids by feeding the families. So we started feeding the families. And we started with about 150 families, and we're now doing right at 800 families a month.

MARTIN: Wow. And what about the whole inflation - the higher food prices? As I said, you know...

JONES: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Everybody's seeing it who buys food. I know, right?

JONES: Yes.

MARTIN: So what effect has this had on your work? How have you noticed it?

JONES: Right now, we gather food from grocery stores. They give us food that they're not going to use, that's about to go out of date or won't be good any longer if they hold it, like produce and stuff. So what we're seeing now is that the grocery stores - we're still getting our meat and our breads, but we're not getting hardly any produce. I mean, our produce is almost zero. And we like to give out fresh produce to our families, you know, because they cannot afford to buy the produce at the grocery stores.

And when they come through and they're talking to me - I talk to every one of them that comes through. I have a one-on-one conversation with every one of them. And we see about 80 to 90 families every week - well, twice a week, I should say. That's about 160 families we see once a week. And I talk to each one of them. And they're telling me, you know, thank you so much for being here for me. I - we don't know what we would do without this food. You know, we couldn't survive without this. My rent is high. I don't have enough gas. They will have to turn their car off while they're sitting there waiting for us to put the groceries in the back of the car because they might give out of gas before they can get home.

You know, it's things like that. And we see so many that are disabled, handicapped, single-parent families. Even the ones that are married, we have them that come through because they say we don't - we just can't make it on what we - what we have. And so many of them are just Social Security alone. And they don't get $100 a month on Social Security. And then when they get their food stamps, they get like 18 or $20 a month. Well, you can't live on food on $20 a month. So they come to us to fill in the gap where they have no food.

MARTIN: It sounds to me like it's a perfect storm. I mean, on the one hand, it's the higher food prices. But the supply disruptions as well...

JONES: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Are really affecting the work.

JONES: It does. But the prices are so high. I mean, I - just me, the other day - I buy a lot of things at Sam's for my personal self. And I've always bought my aluminum foil there. And I get two - it's in a package of two. And normally, it's about six or $7. And this time when I went to buy it, it was $17. I almost - I mean, I almost put it back down, you know, because it was so high. But I don't have - my husband and I, we don't have any money problems right now. You never know what tomorrow holds. But, you know, that's high for even me. I can't - and people that's coming through our line would never even think about buying that.

MARTIN: We have just scratched the surface here.

JONES: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But given everything right now, is there something you really wish people would know about how people are dealing with food right now in America, at least the people you see? Is there something you think, really, people maybe don't know that they aren't getting or that you really wish people would know? - just talking about what you see.

JONES: I - to me, I just wished the economy would get better, where people could afford to have things again, you know, and not say whether I'm going to have food or gas or rent and heat, that sort of thing. I know God tells us that we're going to have the poor all the time. But he tells us to take care of them and to help them and to feed people or whatever they need. Treat them as you would want to be treated yourself. So when you see someone that needs help, reach out to them and help them, you know, because next - tomorrow that could be you on the other side.

MARTIN: That's Linda Jones, co-founder of Alabama Childhood Food Solutions. That's a nonprofit that helps people who need food in central Alabama and so much more. Linda Jones, thank you so much for talking to us. I do hope we'll talk again.

JONES: Thank you. God bless. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.