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By Leah Douglas
(Reuters) - Food banks across the United States are straining to meet spiking demand as high food costs and shrinking federal benefits drive scores of Americans to depend on free groceries, just as Republicans seek to narrow access to food assistance.
President Joe Biden, who this week criticized Republicans' proposals to further cut benefits in order to shrink the country's deficit, pledged last year to end hunger in the U.S. by 2030.
Food banks in Atlanta, New Jersey, Ohio, California, and Washington State and national anti-hunger groups told Reuters that demand is rising because of inflation and the end of a temporary expansion of federal food assistance benefits that kept millions out of poverty during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four food banks told Reuters that demand is up between 46 and 125% since last spring, and that visits to their pantries are as high or higher than they were at the height of the pandemic.
More than 11.4 million households collected free groceries in early April, up 15% from a year ago, according to data from the Census Bureau.
"It feels like we've moved on from the pandemic," said Leslie Bacho, CEO of Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, which served 480,000 people in March – up 92% over last year. "But for food banks, we're still deep in a crisis."
Republicans in Congress are considering cuts to food assistance as one way to shrink federal spending as lawmakers debate whether to raise the country's borrowing limit.
A proposal on the debt issue released Wednesday by Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy included an expansion of work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the largest federal food aid program.
Currently, adults aged 18 to 50 without dependents must work or participate in a job training program at least 20 hours per week to receive SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, for more than three months.
McCarthy's plan would raise that age to 56. Republicans have often proposed stiffer work requirements for SNAP to lower program costs.
Biden, a Democrat, slammed McCarthy's proposal on Wednesday and warned it would harm low-income Americans.
Anti-hunger advocates told Reuters that policies that make it more difficult for people to access SNAP could put further strain on food banks and other emergency food providers.
"Making [work] requirements harder only worsens hunger," said Heather Taylor, managing director of Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger group.
'IT'S NOT SUSTAINABLE'
Households are facing food costs 8.5% higher than last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one reason people are heading to food pantries. Food banks also feel the pinch: two organizations told Reuters their food costs are up 25 to 30% this year compared to last spring.
Meanwhile, SNAP participants saw their benefits decrease by an average of $82 a month in March when the pandemic-era temporary expansion ended, according to Food Research and Action Center. Democrats in Congress negotiated a compromise with Republicans to end the benefits in exchange for a new summer food program for children.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) said in December that it would allocate an additional $1 billion to food banks to meet rising demand. So far, $300 million has been distributed, an agency spokesperson said, with the rest to be allocated by the end of September.
March was the busiest month on record at the Mid-Ohio Food Collective, where first-time visits are up 63% this year compared to the same time last year, said senior vice president of communications Mike Hochron.
The organization is purchasing more food than ever to keep up. "It's not sustainable," Hochron said.
(Reporting by Leah Douglas; Editing by Aurora Ellis)