Skyrocketing Food Costs, Inflation Leave Families and Elderly on the Brink of Ruin: 'Never Seen It This Bad'

Skyrocketing food prices and inflation leave Americans on the brink. "We are seeing people who have never been to a food pantry in their lives," says director of center that gives free groceries, no questions asked.

The most frightening thing about not having food is you can't live without it. 

Going to bed hungry, not having enough money to buy groceries, having to decide between eating and paying rent, these are the choices of life during wartime. Or the Great Depression.

Yet the world's new normal brings another abnormality. A global pandemic, millions dead and now this: Spiraling inflation and a host of other travails has made food one of the most expensive necessities in these upside-down times.

Without food, people cannot survive. And without a healthy diet, children cannot thrive.

At the age of 72, Vicky Watkins in Virginia found herself facing something she'd never encountered in her long life: She didn't have enough money for groceries.

Her landlord raised her rent this summer by $230 a month, she said. She lives on a fixed income from Social Security, and that unexpected increase ate her food budget.

"I've never seen it this bad," she told Inside Edition Digital. The former accounting professional has always lived a modest life. Now she doesn't travel and spends nothing on entertainment outside of a Netflix subscription. "I try to stay within a budget, I always did that," she said.

But even cutting back didn't leave her with many options when it came to groceries. So she swallowed her pride, put on her best face, and joined a long line for the food pantry at the Eastern Shore Chapel Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach.

She stood in the sun for about two and a half hours, she said, surrounded by folks who, like her, needed a hand up in times they never expected to experience.

As she waited, "I was thinking 'Boy, I never thought I would find myself here.'" She said a little prayer. "Lord, humble me."

There were about 75 people in line and she struck up conversations with them. "A lady went through breast cancer, she was recovering from her last treatment, bless her heart, and she was getting food for herself and her two elderly friends," Watkins recounted.

She also talked to some "construction workers who weren't getting work like they used to. Everyone was just saying how food prices were just going out the window. Every item is at least 75 cents or $1.50 more, and there's nothing in the stores," she said.

Watkins eventually picked up about $100 worth of canned green beans, a bag of brown rice, cabbage, cucumbers, zucchini and bread. She had a bit of milk at home, so she didn't take any "just in case there was a family or a child who needed it."

She will continue to use the pantry, which dispenses free food with no questions asked, until January, when her car will be paid off. She's looking for a cheaper apartment from an agency that provides inexpensive rents for those who have limited incomes.

She earns less than $35,000 a year from Social Security, she said. She has accepted her present circumstances, and empathizes with those trying to feed families in these trying times. "I always try to remember that someone has it worse than me," she said. "I believe in God and I believe in prayer. And that's where I stay."

Spiraling Inflation and Spiraling Costs

Numbers paint a disturbing picture of prices for Americans of nearly every economic status save the wealthy. Inflation has hovered at record-setting levels between 9% and 8% in recent months, the highest in four decades. Food costs are among the hardest hit. 

Grocery prices jumped 13.5% last month, compared to August 2021, the U.S. Labor Department reported.

Some basic items have soared into worse double-digit figures. Eggs are up almost 40% in the last year, poultry is up about 17%, dairy products are up more than 16%, while cereal and baked goods rose more than 16%, according to Labor Department figures.

Avian flu outbreaks have driven up costs of eggs and poultry, along with an increased demand for chicken, which is cheaper than beef, industry experts say. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing battles there have paralyzed wheat exports, and climate change and droughts have drastically reduced crop harvests for fruit and vegetables.

Prices for the latter two groups have risen nearly 10% since last August. 

Food agencies across the country saw a dip in their record-setting distribution numbers after the pandemic waned in 2021. But this year, a perfect storm began raging, borne of rapidly rising food prices, supply chain breakdowns, surging rents, staggering energy costs and roaring inflation.

Those who give away food are fighting to keep up, and they are serving people who had had managed to make do, but now are on the edge. 

People in Texas waiting to pick up groceries from a food bank this year. - Getty

One in 10 American families can't put enough food on their tables, according to recent federal statistics. More parents are reporting they have sacrificed meals so their children have food.

In the richest country in the world, 274,000 American households went hungry, skipped meals or didn't eat for days because there wasn't enough money to buy food, according to 2021 government numbers, which are the latest available statistics.

Food bank line in Oakland, Calif., this year. - Getty

Life on the Front Lines of Fighting Hunger

Kay O'Reilly is director of the chapel pantry at Eastern Shore Chapel Episcopal Church, where Watkins recently visited.

"We are seeing people who have never been to a food pantry in their lives," said O'Reilly, who noted the number of those finding themselves in need and coming to her center has doubled just since January. 

Even during the worst of the COVID-19 epidemic, folks had federal assistance in the form of the 2021 Child Care Tax Credit, which gave gave qualifying families monthly payments of $300 per child under age 6 and $250 per child between the ages of 6 and 17.

That extra money ran out early this year. Meaning those disadvantaged families were "able to make ends meet and now they no longer can."

Her pantry is open three times a week, with 350 families showing up each week. That translates into "about 1,200 people every week, " O'Reilly said.

"That number is just astronomical. It means people are waiting two to three hours sometimes to get food. And they're waiting in the sun. They're waiting in the heat. They're waiting in the cold. They're waiting in the rain," she said.

"The other day it rained all day on us, and we still had 128 families come to get food that day," O'Reilly noted.

Her pantry is running at full capacity. "We really can't serve any more people with the facilities that we have, and the time that we have.

"And so I'm hoping it just doesn't get any worse," she said.

Things are bad enough already.

"I have not seen it this bad before," O'Reilly said. "I've been director of this food pantry since 2009, and I started during the Great Recession."

She knows that people are going hungry. "People are very grateful, and they tell us all the time, which is wonderful. But I think people are very, very frustrated with how difficult it is for them to just live an average life, nothing lavish, nothing outlandish — just trying to get by and feed their families."

In Georgia, Kyle Waide heads the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which has been inundated with fresh clients. Since 2020, the number of new folks coming for food has soared by 35%, Waide said.

Line of cars waiting to pick up Atlanta Community Food Bank groceries in March. - Atlanta Community Food Bank

During the height of the pandemic, the food bank's distribution efforts increased by 60%.

"It's a new normal. We're just seeing more and more low- and moderate-income families facing extraordinary pressure," Waide said. "During the pandemic, one of the important stories was that the price for lots of important things went up. Housing costs went way up. Healthcare costs have gone up. Childcare costs have gone up."

The confluence can be crippling. 

"I don't know that we've ever fully recovered from where we were after the pandemic started," Waide said. 

"I think it is a important thing for all of us to remember that it's a mile into the woods, it's a mile back out," he said. "The folks who have experienced hardship over the last few years, including in recent months due to inflation, they've got a long road of recovery ahead of them.

"And we intend to be with them," said Waide.

Atlanta Community Food Bank delivery truck. - Atlanta Community Food Bank

Life for Those in Need

Chelsi Lewis is a 48-year-old, single mother of three children living in Maryland. She is a fulltime student who does odd jobs to supplement her income. 

She now must ration expensive staples like milk, which has skyrocketed in price. Last month, the national average cost for a gallon of whole milk was $4.38, a whopping increase of 28% from August 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Even just last night, my 12-year-old was like, 'Mom, we need some more milk,"' Lewis recounted. "I was like, 'OK, so when I go get it, Zeke, just please, can you just try not to drink it up so fast?"'

Having to tell her children to cut back on something as basic as milk makes her feel like an inadequate mother, she said. 

"It's making me feel bad as a parent because I never, ever wanted to tell my children, 'Can you slow down on drinking the milk?"' she said.

Though she receives $800 in SNAP benefits, and lives in subsidized housing, the zooming costs of food, energy and inflation have made day-to-day life difficult.

Her monthly food stipend now runs out after two weeks. She has made a game of cooking meals in pots — soups, chili, chicken and rice, "things that can last us because these prices are so outrageous," she said.

She struggles to provide healthy food, especially fruit and vegetables. She understands why some families rely on fast food. It's cheaper to buy drive-thru hamburgers than it is to buy the ingredients to make them at home. 

"I see that every day, all day," Lewis said. She gets that parents are buying cheap, filling food like pasta to coat the bellies of their children. "But then they don't have anything healthy to throw into it, but they have to feed their families. I totally understand," she said.

It can sometimes feel like a Solomon's decision and trying to keep those hard choices from your children is a heavy burden to bear.

"As a mother, I don't want my children to see how hard it is," Lewis said. "We don't want our kids involved because they're kids. Let them be kids.

"This is a mommy situation," she continued. "It's a grown-up issue. So, that's why I'm doing my best to try to mask what's really going on," she said.

But she does let her children know that prices have increased, and that they have to think of new ways to stretch their groceries.

"It's crazy. With this being one of the richest, if not the richest country, on the globe. And you see average working folk, people who are just trying to take care of their families, having to deal with this," she said. "It shouldn't be like this in this country that we're living in. It's ridiculous, it really is."

But Lewis is an optimist. She prays every day for things to change. As does O'Reilly, watching the long lines of people patiently waiting for their turn to enter her food bank and wondering when the economic climate will get better and what will change things.

"This is a global problem right now and I do not know the answer. I really don't," O'Reilly said. "I know that more people should look into accessing SNAP, what used to be called food stamps ... to help them get food. 

"Of course, anything that the government can do to help people is great. But I don't have an answer," she said. "I just keep feeding people."

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