As childhood poverty increases in U.S., Metro families finding empty pantry shelves

Now that COVID relief funds have largely halted, Omaha families are beginning to feel the brunt of food shortage.
Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 10:43 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - We know now what we feared then.

“I didn’t have a crystal ball, but I had a really bad feeling about what would transpire in 2023,” Together, Inc. president and CEO Mike Hornacek said. “Sadly it’s coming to fruition, and now I’m reaching out to our community and asking for help. We can’t do it alone.”

Hornacek said Metro families are struggling at “peak pandemic” levels months after the end of many pandemic-era assistance programs. And in Nebraska and Iowa, if SNAP benefit extensions end this month the flames of poverty will be fanned.

“A lot of people are walking through the door every day, as they have been for many years, but the shelves are not as full,” Hornacek said. “What we have on the shelves is really not what we would like from a standard perspective, Something that’s really important to us here at Together is a lot of produce, a lot of dairy, a lot of protein, and if you look through the shelves a lot of those things are not present.”

“That’s really a direct result of lack of resources.”

A U.S. Census Bureau report released this week shows that after two years of declines in poverty tied to safety net programs expanded during the pandemic, poverty among children doubled in 2022.

Rising inflation may hurt everyone, but it hurts those facing food insecurity more.

“You don’t have the food on the table, you don’t have the food in the cupboards that you’ve been accustomed to and that means people are making tough choices about, you know, am I gonna skip a meal? Am I gonna skip a couple of meals?” Hornacek said. “They’re they’re making very very difficult choices and the cost of living continues to increase, kids are going back to school, and there are all those back to school expenses, and so we’re actually seeing a big spike in need in August and September so far.”

A class of U.N.O. students working in the Together garden outside the pantry’s main building were getting practical experience in community involvement.

“I keep telling them this is small but it has larger implications like supply chain management, culture, food, and agricultural studies. There’s a lot of things that can be tied, the economy, economics, to a simple act like planting these seeds,” UNO’s Exploratory Studies instructor in Sociology and Anthropology Isabelle Beulaygue said.

She hopes those students will begin to better understand their place in any big-picture solution to the food security crisis.

“Not just in terms of food insecurity, that’s critical, that’s the thing that we think of first, but also in terms of, you know, about 90% of my students had never done something like this and they didn’t know that this existed,” Beulaygue said. “So in terms of getting, you know, our youth and the future generations to know about this and to get involved locally with people who are less fortunate or people who don’t have the same opportunities.”

Together’s garden is really a community effort. People in the neighborhood can take part, and partake in the fruits of the labor. But Hornacek said what we all know: it’s not enough.

“When people walk in Together’s door or really any pantry in the community, we should be able to provide those resources,” Hornacek said. “And right now we’re just going to need our community to step up and help more than what they’ve had to in the last few years because we’ve had those extra resources. I know everybody’s being impacted by the cost of living increases... but we really need everybody to dig deep and really help because it’s adversely affecting a lot of people.”

The most recent vital statistics on the Douglas County website do not yet include the 2022 poverty numbers for the Metro.