Kentucky Politics

Pandemic-related inflation has increased the risk of food insecurity among some Kentuckians. Experts say Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in both immediate and long-term barriers to food access. 

“People are literally making life choices right at the gas pumps right now,” said Vincent James, CEO of the regional food pantry Dare to Care. “That quite naturally is going to impact families, and particularly those families that were already experiencing food insecurity exacerbated by the pandemic, we’re going to see that those numbers continue to climb.”

Unexpected shifts in energy costs, like the recent surges to gasoline prices, can directly affect household food security, according to a 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture study. It found that, the lower a family’s income, the more vulnerable it is to fluctuating costs. 

Data detailing the impacts of the energy costs on food access likely won’t be available for months to come. But Dare to Care is anticipating increased needs for assistance in the near future.

The organization is working to secure multiple resource lines to ensure availability of produce and nonperishables — both within its own warehouses and through other service partners. 

“We’re working to fill in the gaps that we see,” James said. “When it comes to choosing between groceries or gas, we want our neighbors to know that they can choose gas, because we’ll be there to help them with the groceries.” 

Dustin Pugel, senior policy analyst with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said recent global events are likely to contribute to inflating food costs — since Russia and Ukraine are top exporters of wheat.

“Folks who don’t have a lot of money, they spend almost everything they have, that’s the whole idea of living paycheck to paycheck,” Pugel said. “Food prices do fluctuate … they may stabilize, or they may reduce a little bit, but they don’t usually go back down below where they were prior to an inflationary spike.”

Pugel said pandemic-related safety nets like increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, direct stimulus payments and the Child Tax Credit have helped people struggling to make ends meet stay afloat. But, most of those preventative measures have either already expired or are nearing an end.

“Our main support for affording groceries for the folks who need the most, which is SNAP, is sort of being undermined on all sides by the legislature right now.”

The state’s Republican-led legislature passed a measure last week to end the COVID-19 state of emergency in Kentucky. That would slash additional food stamp benefits by $50 million per month starting in May — an average cut of $100 per person that could affect more than half million state residents.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear vetoed the measure, but lawmakers have the power to override that action. 

On Thursday, lawmakers also advanced a bill out of the House Health and Family Services committee that would restrict access to food benefits. The measure would require residents to frequently report life changes – like income amounts, the number of hours worked and household size — or face repercussions, including losing out on the assistance altogether. 

“If somebody moved in or out of your house, or if there’s a small change in income…then you could lose your benefits,” Pugel said. “If it turns out, you didn’t report that and [the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services] found out later, they could make you pay back the benefits they gave you.”

Pugel said the measure also threatens to disqualify residents who repeatedly fail to report life changes from receiving other kinds of benefits. 

Currently, Kentuckians who already receive one form of public assistance may automatically qualify for other benefits. However, the proposal also aims to eliminate that eligibility standard.

Yasmine Jumaa is WFPL’s race and equity reporter.