Food insecurity worries grow as unemployment benefits run out

Food insecurity

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Employment in the U.S. is on the rise for the third month during the pandemic, but numbers released Friday by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show there are still 16.3 million Americans without a job. $600 in additional federal unemployment payments aren’t being sent out now, and in Tucson organizations are worried this will create greater food insecurity.

At La Cocina in downtown Tucson, their doors might be temporarily closed to the public, but their plates are open for those in need. Friday, they restarted their free meals program,  prepping and giving out close to 40 meals.

On Friday, La Cocina restarted their free meals program, prepping and giving out close to 40 meals.
On Friday, La Cocina restarted their free meals program, prepping and giving out close to 40 meals. (Source: KOLD)

“In being closed it felt like the right choice for us, to not only help us stay involved and stay active in the community, but also keep ourselves busy,” said Allie Baron, manager, La Cocina.

Their restaurant’s been doing this since March, taking a small break in July, and running off donations. What is not immediately used is donated to Z Mansion. Without the extra assistance people were getting in unemployment, they’re expecting more people will be in need. More people, like Emily Butler, who usually works at La Cocina, but is now on unemployment—handing out food to many in her same situation.

Offering free meals after the $600 unemployment benefit ended
Offering free meals after the $600 unemployment benefit ended (Source: KOLD)

“Now that it’s down to $200 dollars, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Emily Butler, waitress at La Cocina. “I can’t pay my mortgage with that, much less buy food or pay my bills.”

She eats the three meals a week she hands out to help cut costs. Arizona Department of Economic Security said 70, 469 people filed for initial unemployment claims in the state for the last week of July. Mid-July saw the most initial claims in the state, with 270,000 to a little more than 280,000 initial claims during the weeks of the 18 and 25th.  The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona is anticipating more people in need of help.

“Between [the federal unemployment assistance stooping] and the economy not being up to par and not all schools going back,” said Sio Castillo, Community Food Bank.

They said March through June has seen a forty percent increase of people in need compared to last year. Thursday, Community Food Bank said they helped more than 1,200 households at their Kino Sports Complex distribution center.

TUSD said they have seen 7 percent more of their families using SNAP benefits, and that are enrolled in free and reduced lunches. Food bus routes will still be available during remote learning.

“We’re still here to support our community and families with meals and address food insecurity, so…we encourage families to come out to the bus stop,” said Lindsay Aguilar, Director of the Food Services Department at TUSD.

ADES said 147,868 people in Pima County received SNAP benefits in June 2020, down from nearly 150,000 in April 2020. It’s a large increase from 2019. In April 2019, 128, 946 people in Pima County received SNAP benefits.

(Arizona and Pima County SNAP Recipients. Source: ADES)

Month Arizona Recipients Pima Recipients
June 2020 901,822 147,868
May 2020 866,704 142,023
April 2020 915,468 149,990
July 2019 819,225 132,818
June 2019 810,525 131,655
May 2019 799,615 129,243
April 2019 795,115 128,946

“It is important to note that unemployment insurance benefits are counted as income when determining eligible for Nutrition Assistance. Therefore, the majority of unemployed individuals who’ve received regular Unemployment Insurance or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, with the additional $600 in weekly Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, would not be eligible for Nutrition Assistance,” said a DES spokesperson in a written statement.

As the months add up for those unemployed. The next step is unknown.

 “It’s one day at a time…there’s not a lot out there,” said Butler.

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