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Food scarcity hits harder during the holidays

colorful produce: red apples, veggie trays containing broccoli and carrots, spinach and tomatoes
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Living in a city like Richmond doesn’t automatically make food access easier.

“We have been getting more calls to the SNAP helpline of people saying, ‘I don't know how to feed myself now.’”

As the holiday season continues, many Central Virginia residents are grappling with the aftermath of having their SNAP benefits reverted to pre-pandemic levels earlier this year. This change was in result to emergency assistance received during the COVID-19 pandemic coming to an end.

In February, around 16 million households in the United States experienced a significant decrease in their benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This reduction was implemented as part of a federal rollback of pandemic-era assistance measures. In Central Virginia alone, just over 175,000 people are enrolled in SNAP as of November 2023,according to SNAP Participation Reports who could still be feeling the squeeze from the reduction. By March, federal pandemic aid formally ended.

“We lost out on millions and millions and millions of dollars with the ending of that emergency allotment," said Cassie Edner, a public benefits attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “We have been getting more calls to the SNAP helpline of people saying, ‘I don't know how to feed myself now.’”

Edner is also the director of VPLC’s Virginia Hunger Solutions program, which works “to break down systemic barriers that keep low-income Virginians in the cycle of poverty.

According to Edner, some of the program’s participants are faced with difficult decisions daily regarding how or if they’ll eat. During pandemic funding, a household of one could receive $281 monthly for food. Now, Edner says those households are getting a very small fraction of that amount — and it’s especially impacting older adults.

“We have seen a significant amount of seniors being dropped down to $23 a month, and they can no longer afford to feed themselves,” she said. “We hear people saying, ‘I have to choose between my insulin or having a healthy diet.’”

Access to fresh food

Being able to access fresh or frozen food has been an obstacle both physically and financially according to Eddie Oliver, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

“Unfortunately, fresh healthy food is often the most expensive food that you'll find in the grocery store. And so too often we see families go without that, because they're looking for the most calories they can get for the least amount of money,” Oliver said.

Oliver continued that many of Virginia’s most food-insecure communities — rural communities, especially in Southwest Virginia and Southside Virginia — have high rates of food insecurity.

But living in a city doesn’t automatically make food access easier.

“Even in urban areas, we see families having to take a bus route an hour each way to get to and from a grocery store,” he said. “Many communities aren’t served well by public transportation; those families may not own a car, and may not be able to get around as well.”

The Federation of Virginia Food Banks works on behalf of all seven regional Feeding America food banks in the state. Those food banks collectively work with 1,200 partner agencies: food pantries, soup kitchens, public and private homeless shelters.

The assortment of agencies are mostly made up of pantries that supply shelf-stable goods — fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat, nonperishable goods usually found in a grocery store.

Barry Greene Jr. is the Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Reparations Narratives.