4 ideas to reduce hunger in America as food prices skyrocket

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A woman picks up a Bento takeout order at a local restaurant. Courtesy of Bento.

(NewsNation) — From pickup orders to stimulus checks, solutions that prove useful in other facets of life could inform how we address a basic but complicated issue: hunger. 

As recently as 2020, 1 in 8 Americans reported not having consistent access to a sufficient amount of food.

Inflation will likely make the issue worse. Food prices are nearly 9% higher today than they were a year ago and rising, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and global food prices are surging at their fastest pace ever as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine — two of the world’s largest wheat and corn producers — continues in its second month.

Besides mounting costs, people’s access to grocery stores, limited food selections and even stigmas around asking for help can keep many Americans from getting the food they need.

Here are four solutions that could help:

Food-on-demand, via text

Bento is a text messaging service that allows participants to choose from a variety of options offered by local businesses, send a text and then pick up their free grocery or food order. 

Behind the scenes, community, health or government agencies identify who can qualify for the program and then pay Bento to do the rest. 

While food banks can be far from public transit or only open during work hours, Bento allows participants to pick up food from local grocery stores and restaurants. On the menu: nutritious options that also reflect their culture. Due to its anonymity, people may feel less stigma and shame than when visiting a food bank.

Courtesy of Bento

While Bento is a high-tech solution, it relies on texts so users don’t need an expensive smartphone or even internet access to place their order, although it does require a phone to work. Bento also can’t do delivery orders due to higher costs, although it’s something the company is looking into.

Bento has only been around for about 1.5 years, so it doesn’t have data on how well the solution works or its long-term effects. 

Rescue’ wasted food from stores and restaurants

In the suburbs of Washington D.C., Northern Virginia Food Rescue enlists volunteers to “rescue” excess food from grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals and farmers’ markets that would otherwise be thrown out.

Volunteers get an alert from the organization’s app about excess food nearby that is ready to be picked up. The food is then donated to food banks and other nonprofits.

It’s estimated that 30-40 percent of food is wasted. This not only represents a lost opportunity to feed the hungry but is a significant contributor to methane, a greenhouse gas released as food rots in landfills.

Since its launch three years ago, the Virginia organization has picked up around 3 million pounds of food. In the fiscal year 2021, it donated more than 100,000 pounds of food to senior homes and completed almost 15,000 pickups.

Food Rescue was inspired by Pittsburgh-based 412 Rescue. Groups in at least a dozen other cities and regions across the United States and Canada are now running programs using this same technology.

Aaron Tolson, Food Rescue’s CEO, noted that running a successful food rescue program requires extensive legwork and coordination between those donating and receiving the food. That requires knowing how much food will actually be used.

“What we are doing as a staff on the backend is building out the relationships with the food donors, grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, schools, farmers, farmers markets,” he said, adding that it can be challenging for people at those businesses to understand what they’re doing.

“Even though corporate might be like, ‘Yeah, this is great. We want our stores to donate food,’ it still comes down to the local level, the local store manager … as to whether or not they’re going to do it.”

Fridges with free around the neighborhood
Two boys stock food in a community fridge. Courtesy of Freedge.

Refrigerators plugged in along sidewalks, roads and stores across the country are also offering support to neighbors in need.

Here’s how it works: people go to the grocery store and on their way home, they stock the community fridges with the same fresh produce, meat or other goods they’re buying for their own families. Sometimes local groups and stores pitch in as well.

Then, anytime anyone needs to, they can visit a fridge and take whatever they want. Since they’re open 24 hours a day and relatively anonymous, proponents say people feel less embarrassed about visiting a community fridge if they need to. 

Since these efforts rely on the goodwill of strangers and the honor system, there are some clear limitations — keeping fridges stocked can be difficult and with a lack of centralized oversight, organizers can have differing visions for local fridges. Anyone who wants to can take as much as they want, whether they need it or not. 

It’s also difficult to measure the impact and success of the fridges since they serve people anonymously.

Ernst Bertone Oehninger co-founded Freedges, one nonprofit promoting this effort, and says the fridges do seem to grow a sense of community wherever they pop up.

“The person who installed the fridge there, the person who brought the food, and the person who took their food — all of them benefited from the food,” Oehninger said.

Giving out cashSome communities across the country are experimenting with a new type of benefit, known as “guaranteed basic income,” which sends cash directly to qualifying residents.

These payments are distributed in a way that’s similar to stimulus checks but they are limited to certain types of people, often based on their income or where they live. 

Los Angeles, one of the most recent cities to approve a pilot program, is offering 3,000 people $1,000 a month for a year. There are no restrictions on how the money can be used.

Proponents say this could address hunger by giving people who live in food deserts the means to buy from more places and overcome restrictions on food assistance programs that limit access to healthy or culturally-appropriate food. 

Sukhi Samra, who heads a similar pilot program in Stockton, California, told Chicago Public Media these programs cover the gaps that public benefits don’t and allow people to be better family and community members. 

“What we have heard a lot is parents talking about just the ways in which the $500 per month allowed them to really show up as the parents that they want to be,” she said. 

Many who oppose guaranteed income projects say they deter people from working, make public benefits more confusing and can drive up inflation. 

There is some evidence this kind of targeted support does reduce the most pressing issues, such as hunger and shelter, facing people in poverty. A study of the Stockton pilot found that people used the money for their most basic needs — food, childcare, rent and transportation.

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