Many New Yorkers are feeling the effect of higher food prices as grocery store staples such as eggs, meat, fish and cooking oil continue to get more expensive. The burden may be especially great for those who were already struggling to afford food.

Food insecurity sky-rocketed when COVID-19 shut down New York City in spring 2020 and still has not eased back to pre-pandemic levels. Now, food prices are rising due to a mix of global forces — such as climate change, Russia blocking wheat from being exported from Ukraine and the avian flu affecting the supply of chicken and eggs.

Since signing up for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program last June, Harlem resident Blanca Lopez says she and her husband and two daughters have come to rely on the $459 a month they get through the program, formerly known as food stamps. She says she has mostly recuperated the cleaning work she lost during the pandemic, but her husband still has fewer construction jobs than he once did.

On a recent Tuesday, Lopez visited the office of the nonprofit Hunger Free America, near Yankee Stadium, to make sure her benefits got renewed. But, speaking to Gothamist in Spanish, she said the money doesn’t go as far as it once did.

“Sometimes it almost lasts us to the end of the month, but since [the cost of] food has increased a lot, I don’t know if it will be enough,” she said.

Lopez said she has started looking for cheaper options – such as buying the berries her daughter likes from street vendors rather than in the store – but she also sometimes turns to food pantries.

Hunger experts say SNAP is a critical tool to help people afford nutritious food – and it helps stimulate the economy. But while monthly SNAP benefits have gotten more generous during the pandemic, they aren’t stretching as far – and it’s unclear how long the temporary supplemental payments approved by the Biden administration will last at current levels.

A City Harvest poll of 16,000 New York City food pantry users conducted in December 2021 found that almost all respondents were already noticing higher food prices. Nearly 9 in 10 said the trend was leading them to change their purchasing habits and the same number said they anticipated having to rely more on food pantries in the future because of rising costs.

Why are food prices so high?

Consumer food prices have only continued to rise since this winter. They were 10% higher this past May than in May 2021, with grocery stores seeing a bigger increase than restaurants, according to figures updated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday.

Along with inflation and higher gas prices, a wide range of global factors are contributing to the price hikes. These include the war in Ukraine, droughts caused by climate change, supply chain disruptions and labor issues precipitated by the pandemic, according to David Ortega, an associate professor at Michigan State University.

That means a long list of grocery store items are affected. For instance, the war in Ukraine contributed to a 4% rise in wholesale wheat prices in May, and wheat flour prices are now expected to increase between 23% and 26% this year, according to the USDA.

Ortega noted the region is also a major supplier of sunflower oil. “Sunflower oil is one of the most commonly used types of vegetable oil that's found in a lot of our processed food products,” he explained.

Climate change is another factor here that I think gets left out of the conversation quite a bit.

David Ortega, food economist, Michigan State University

Meanwhile, the price of eggs and poultry has been driven up by increases in production costs such as energy, birdfeed and labor, according to the USDA. And an avian flu outbreak is exacerbating the situation.

“Climate change is another factor here that I think gets left out of the conversation quite a bit,” Ortega said.

Droughts in California are depressing agricultural production there, reportedly affecting crops such as rice, fruits and vegetables.

“But we're also seeing the effects of climate change in other important agricultural producing regions in South America,” said Ortega. “That leads to lower yields, which means there’s less food, and that puts upward pressure on food prices.”

Given the chronic nature of climate change and the indefinite war in Ukraine, their influence on food prices could be long term.

Reversing food insecurity in New York City

Some food pantries are serving more people now than they did at the height of the pandemic in New York, according to Cheryl Huber, vice president of food and benefits access at United Way of New York City, which supports about 500 food pantries and soup kitchens across the five boroughs.

“They're really struggling to keep up with demand,” Huber said.

She attributed this, in part, to the expiration of certain forms of pandemic relief, such as a moratorium on evictions and higher unemployment benefits.

“People have just been plunged right back to where they started or worse,” she said.

Huber and representatives from Hunger Free America and City Harvest said the ongoing boost to SNAP benefits is helping families stay afloat.

The amount of money people get from SNAP depends on a range of factors — such as household size, income, expenses and the immigration status of each family member.

New Yorkers began receiving emergency supplemental SNAP payments early in the pandemic and the Biden administration has agreed to extend them until the federal state of emergency around COVID-19 expires. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the latest extension on June 10th, saying it represented an infusion of about $234 million in federal dollars.

Outside Hunger Free America's office in the Bronx.

Outside Hunger Free America's office in the Bronx.

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Outside Hunger Free America's office in the Bronx.
Caroline Lewis

With the enhanced benefits, New Yorkers get the maximum amount of SNAP dollars allowed for their household size, regardless of their income (although if some members of the household are undocumented, the amount could be reduced). For a single person, that’s $250 a month.

Prior to the pandemic, the minimum amount of monthly SNAP benefits a single person could get was $16. When the payments are that low, “people really don't enroll because they're like, ‘It's not worth it,’” Huber said.

The Biden administration has also put a permanent increase in place that will boost the average person’s SNAP benefits by about $36 dollars a month, but Huber said she is still worried about the dip in benefits New Yorkers could see once the public health emergency is declared over.

“We know that so many families rely on pantries once their SNAP dollars run out for the month,” Huber said. “It's an intense ask for an emergency food system that's largely volunteer-run.”

Those working on food insecurity in New York City have been discussing the policy changes they want to see ahead of a White House conference on hunger that’s planned for September.

The way we used to eat, we're not eating anymore.

Willard Tolson

“One thing that came up a lot was just making sure that SNAP is not based on the federal poverty guidelines,” said Steven Deheeger, senior policy and advocacy manager at City Harvest. “Another thing is just ensuring that it reflects the actual cost of food.”

Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, said there should be more outreach around SNAP so that everyone who qualifies takes advantage of the program.

“The most under-served populations are legal immigrants, seniors, and low-income working people who often think SNAP is only for the unemployed,” Berg said.

It’s unclear whether rising grocery prices will lead to higher enrollment, but 90-year-old Willard Tolson said it prompted him to find out if he could sign up. Tolson, who relies on social security, went into the Hunger Free America office near his house in the Bronx after seeing their sign about SNAP benefits outside.

“We’re skimping on meals,” Tolson said. “The way we used to eat, we're not eating anymore.”

New York City residents can apply for SNAP online here.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now’s ‘Food & Water’ joint coverage week.