Hunger around America is improving, compared with a month ago, according to the most recent U.S. census data. But food insecurity has a long way to go before returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Self-reported food insecurity for the week ending Aug. 2 was at its lowest levels since the start of the coronavirus pandemic for households with children, according to the census data. That dovetails with strong jobs numbers, stronger economic growth and other bright spots in the economic recovery.

But food stamps enrollment is still way up, 2 million more than last year and 6 million more than in 2019. And food banks are still seeing dramatically more need than during pre-pandemic times.

Plus money doesn’t go quite as far, as the cost of many grocery items — including beef, poultry, eggs and dairy — continues to tick higher, as it has for well over a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ongoing need is just part of the reason the Biden administration increased food assistance benefits last week, the largest increase to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) on record.

Yet, economists and anti-hunger advocates suggest rejoicing may be premature, in light of ongoing food insecurity.

Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks around the country, distributed about 10 percent less food in the second quarter of this year compared with the peak of the pandemic last year. But food distribution is still about 40 percent higher than the same period in 2019. And things aren’t moving in the right direction: More than 100 of Feeding America’s food banks reported rising or static need in June compared with May.

In Las Vegas, for example, Three Square Food Bank saw need creeping back up in June: It distributed 4.4 million meals — nearly 20,000 more than at the peak of the shutdown in April 2020 when the county unemployment rate hit 33.3 percent.

Jodi Tyson, vice president for strategic initiatives at Three Square, says SNAP enrollment is often a good predictor of whether the food banks will see a bump in need, and lately food stamp numbers have been rising again in Nevada, after a spring decline.

“Now we’re thinking about the impacts for us,” she said. “Enhanced unemployment won’t be there for much longer, nor will the peace of mind of people knowing they won’t get evicted. As these dwindle down, then we will truly see the impact of the lessening of these other benefits. That will continue to make SNAP the first line of defense.”

In the greater Louisville area, about 150,000 people were considered food insecure before the pandemic hit, according to Stanley Siegwald of the Dare to Care Food Bank. He says it reached 200,000 at the peak of the pandemic. While things got better this spring, more recently it has crept back up to 170,000 people.

“It’s important to remember that pre-pandemic, that number was way too high,” Siegwald said. “With the delta variant, and with kids back in school and more kids being quarantined, we suspect we’ve got an interesting 60 days in front of us. It’s a marathon, but one where we don’t know where the end is.”

Natalie Caples, co-chief executive of the Central California Food Bank in Fresno, Calif., says the boost in SNAP benefits is to be applauded, but it still leaves gaps that will have low-income Americans turning to food banks. In the Fresno area, food needs are still 30 percent over pre-pandemic levels, she says. At the same time, donations from retailers remain low, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) aid has ended, and the next round of Emergency Food Assistance Program aid just recently began, leaving many food banks scrambling for enough food.

Feeding the Gulf Coast, a food bank operating in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, received 8 million pounds in CFAP food before that program ended. Donation levels are down, says chief executive Michael Ledger. And while food insecurity in that area diminished somewhat this spring, the need grew again this past month by 10 to 15 percent, Ledger says. The Theodore, Ala.-based food bank, which has reinstituted masking and touchless distribution of food, is still consistently serving 30 percent more people than before the pandemic.

The census data indicating that food insecurity improved for the week ending Aug. 2 appears to be reflecting federal aid programs that are buoying low-income families with children, says Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Families with children received the child tax credit, while families without children reported just a slight dip in food-insecurity levels.

“Everyone’s question should be: Will we see [food insecurity] plateau here or continue to improve? I expect it to continue to improve because the economy is getting better. But poor people are hit worst by recessions, and it takes them longer to recover,” Whitmore Schanzenbach said.

Right around the same time families received child tax credit payments in mid-July, low-income families also received another kind of federal benefit, summer Pandemic-EBT, which is a program meant to replace free or subsidized meals for kids out of school, according to Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a public policy nonprofit.

“Some states were sending out hundreds of dollars in leftover EBT money because it was late to go out, and we don’t yet have a great handle on which [the child tax credit or Pandemic-EBT] was more significant in terms of easing food insecurity,” she said. The Pandemic-EBT program is slated to end in September, and the final child tax credit payments go out in December, so neither will be a long-term boosts for American families, even as grocery prices continue to soar.

Bauer also suggests that a spike in enrollment in food safety net programs like SNAP, and in the use of food banks, may be in part because the stigma has been diminished over the past 18 months, and “we are in a world where people are still figuring out how to make ends meet.” Uncertainty about what the delta variant will do may be supercharging this.

The boost in SNAP benefits announced Aug. 16 by the Biden administration is significant, but recipients may not feel much. The permanent increase, which is roughly 27 percent, encompassing a boost for inflation as well as a new review of the price tag for a nutritious diet, comes just as a temporary pandemic-related boost in the American Rescue Plan expires Sept. 30. The average SNAP benefit will increase by $11 in October, according to an Agriculture Department spokeswoman.

Moreover, many Americans who were getting hundreds of dollars more in food stamps during the pandemic through a completely different kind of emergency benefit, will see that money disappear when federal and state pandemic health declarations expire.

Not everyone is convinced that the census data is a good reflection of hunger in America, or that increases to SNAP are merited. For one thing, the census only recently began looking into hunger on a regular basis.

“We don’t know for certain that hunger increased in America during the pandemic, because the survey now used as a measure has no pre-pandemic baseline,” said Robert Paarlberg, a professor at Wellesley College and author of “Resetting the Table.” “There is a chance that food consumption overall actually increased during the pandemic, thanks to a surge in government support plus increased private charity.”

While the SNAP increase is a good way to sustain income support for poorer households, Paarlberg says it does not guarantee improved nutrition. America’s dietary health is burdened by too much consumption of unhealthy foods, much of which can be purchased with SNAP benefits, he adds.

For Thomas Lambert, 68, and his wife, Janice, 66, in Riverside, Ohio, returning to pre-pandemic SNAP levels, even with the new boost, will be a hardship. Thomas is a retired pizza-delivery driver with emphysema; Janice worked in the housekeeping department at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base hospital before going on disability after a car accident. Now fully vaccinated, they have still been strongly advised by doctors to self-quarantine during the pandemic. Thomas has been on unemployment, with weekly payments that have vacillated between $600 and zero. They’ve depended on SNAP benefits during the pandemic.

They anticipate losing $410 per month, once the emergency pandemic boost to food stamps disappears. And those losses won’t be sufficiently offset by the 27 percent permanent SNAP increase announced this past week.

Before the pandemic, they received the SNAP minimum of $16 per month. During the pandemic, they were raised to the maximum of $430. After they return to the pre-pandemic minimum of $16, an extra 25 percent will get them only about $20 per month, Thomas said.

“Therefore, we lose $410 that we had become comfortable having,” he said. “It was a nice supplement to our Social Security, especially as my wife nears the Medicare ‘donut hole,’ and I’m not far behind. It was great of the politicians to grant those significant funds and equally ungreat to yank them away.”


An earlier version of this story stated the wrong date for final Child Tax Credit payments.