Apr 1, 2022 - Podcasts

Food banks are feeling the squeeze

Inflation is now at 7.9 percent and has been causing financial hardship for millions of American families for months. But it's getting harder for food banks to get the staples they need in order to help.

  • Plus, a historic release from the US oil reserve.
  • And, how Wordle is bringing families together.

Guests: Axios’ Torey Van Oot, Jason Clayworth, Taylor Allen, and Stephen Totilo.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected] You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Friday, April 1st. Ramadan Mubarak to those observing. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Today – a historic release from the US oil reserve. Plus, how a word game is bringing families closer together. But first, food banks are feeling the squeeze – that’s today’s One Big Thing.

NIALA: Inflation is now at 7.9 percent - that’s as of February, our most recent data - but we know it’s been causing financial hardship for millions of American families for months. In the first two weeks of March, 20 percent of adults living in households with children said they did not have enough to eat. That's according to the Census Household Pulse Survey. In early February, that number was at just 13 percent. And as more families struggle to pay for weekly groceries, many are turning to food banks for help. But because of those same rising costs, it's getting harder for food banks to get the staples they need to feed those who need it most. And people who are better off are less likely to donate right now. We asked Axios reporters in three cities to share what things look like there. In Minnesota, Axios Twin Cities reporter Torey Van Oot talked to the food pantry Second Harvest Heartland. They distribute more than a hundred million pounds of food a year in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Their costs are up 9% since last year.

TOREY VAN OOT: At the same time, donations are down, including when it comes to more expensive items like meat and peanut butter. They actually haven't received a meat donation in months at this point and smaller organizations are struggling too. The director of basic needs at CAPI, which is a nonprofit that provides aid to immigrant and refugee communities here in the Twin Cities said he's having trouble sourcing rice and some other culturally specific staples for the community he serves, because of higher prices and supply chain issues. At the same time, the volume of visits to CAPI's food pantry is about twice what it was before the pandemic still. 

NIALA: Demand for food banks is only expected to rise. Americans are moving on from the pandemic - with many covid restrictions gone. But that also means pandemic-era relief programs have expired, leaving many without the extra cash they relied on during the pandemic. In Iowa, for example, boosted SNAP benefits expired yesterday - cutting at least $95 a month for about 150,000 households. Axios Des Moines reporter Jason Clayworth has been talking to food pantries that are bracing for a rise in demand:

JASON CLAYWORTH: It's putting extra strain on family finances, but it's also straining the organizations that are helping them. A five ounce can of chicken, which is a standard item purchased by the Des Moines Metro's food pantry network - It's nearly doubled since March of 2019 to $1.05. That doesn't sound like a lot, but when you're helping tens of thousands of families a year, it has a huge effect and could narrow the amount of emergency food assistance being offered.

NIALA: The hunger crisis has led some activists to come up with creative solutions. Axios Philadelphia reporter Taylor Allen talked to a group of three food activists who just reopened their restaurant with a focus on food affordability.

TAYLOR ALLEN: The Golden Dragon in West Philly was already a takeout restaurant, but three food activists have since taken it over and have made a concerted effort to make sure that none of their food that they serve cost more than $10. Something you'll hear all the time is that Philadelphia is the poorest largest, big city - one in five people are at or below the poverty line. So they teamed up with a local urban farm, it's called Truelove seeds and also a distribution food network called West Philly Bunny Hop. So they're really just tapping into their existing food networks that already have a focus on food affordability, and that's how they're making this work.

NIALA: The Golden Dragon is also planning on launching a food pantry in the restaurant. The US Department of Agriculture has said they expect to spend about $2 billion on supporting the country's emergency food programs. But many groups worry that won't be enough to address record-high gas prices, a strained supply chain and rising inflation. Thanks to Axios Local reporters Torey Van Oot, Jason Clayworth and Taylor Allen

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with headlines from the war in Ukraine. 


NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo. To catch you up quick on the war on Ukraine and its worldwide impact, here are three things we’re watching going into the weekend: President Biden has ordered a historic release from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve – 180 million oil barrels – reduce high prices at the pump. The energy department says a million barrels will be released each day for 6 months. The Treasury Department has placed new sanctions on Russian technology companies – the sanctions affect a wide swath of the Russian economy, including aerospace, marine, and electronics parts. And, despite Russian statements that troops would pull out of Kiev, they’re not They’re regrouping. Here’s what NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday: 

JENS STOLTENBERG:...Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions. So we can only judge Russia on its actions, not on its words.

NIALA: Russia and Ukraine negotiators resume talks via video link today.

NIALA: We told you back in January when Wordle—the popular daily word game that was developed during the pandemic by Josh Wardle was sold to the New York Times. Well, the game's viral popularity continues and last week Wardle revealed some of the history of the game and why he thinks it's become such a phenomenon. Stephen Totilo, gaming reporter at Axios is here. Stephen, what did we learn from Joshua Wardle about Wordle?

STEPHEN TOTILO: We learned that this was first of all, a longer time coming than I think a lot of people thought. Some people may know part of the story behind the game, which is that he made this not expecting to have a viral hit, not trying to sell to anybody and make a lot of money, but he made this game for his partner. He wanted there to be a game that she could play, something they could bond over. Turns out he made the first prototype in 2013 with a way harder word list I should mention.

NIALA: Okay. So I looked at some of these words, they are hard. STEPHEN: Well, are you saying you don't say mozad a lot in a sentence? You don't use yrneh? Y R N E H. He basically used, I think, a list of all possible five letter words in the English language. And then what he did, was he said that there was a phase where his partner was kind of bummed out she wanted kind of an easy thing to play. So we took that same word list. He fed it into an app and all she had to do is spit out a word at random and she would just rank it as I know the word, or I don't know the word and that work that she did there, that created the word list that now everybody's playing when they play Wordle. So it's words his partner knew, and that's why we know most of those words as well. Cause they're relatively common words.

NIALA: Why do you think this has been so successful?

STEPHEN: Well, Josh Wardle himself had a really interesting insight. He felt like people were kind of yearning for a connection these days in society. So we're super connected with everything we can do digitally, but we still, for some reason, feel a lack of connection. And what he began to notice was that people who played Wordle were connecting with people in ways they didn't expect to. He shared the story of a family divided by politics, somebody saying my mom has gone into like Q Anon conspiracies. I can't speak to her about any of that. And yet we can talk every day and bond over Wordle and what we're doing there. He said he felt he created a kind of a safe space and a safe way to communicate. Wordle gave people a way to check in on their loved ones without necessarily having to say something like, I love you to them. It's just a way to let somebody know that you're thinking about them. Hey, how'd you do in Wordle today? A safe way to bond in a digital landscape where so many connections can be really treacherous.

NIALA: As we've sort of seen this Renaissance in other online word games, like the New York Times spelling bee. Do you think there's a trend here or is that too soon to say?

STEPHEN: Word games have been popular from before there were video games, right with Scrabble and there's something appealing to them. Words with Friends had its moment as well. And it's still very popular but from time to time, a word game breaks through. What I think they serve in our lives. There's something universal about playing games and feeling the satisfaction of engaging with a rule set that cooperates with you. So much of life is unfair. So much of life you do the thing you think you need to do to get ahead or to succeed, or just continue. And then it falls apart. In some way, our children don't listen to us. We thought we pay the right amount of taxes. And then we find out we were behind. We go to the gym to get stronger, healthier, and somehow we get injured anyway. Games provide us the logic and clarity. We have progression of simplicity. You see that word game, beat, spelling bee or word or whatever else. And you know, you just got to follow those rules and you'll figure it out. As long as the word isn't yorps.

NIALA: Now we're going to be looking up all of these words. Stephen Totilo is a coauthor of Axios’,gaming newsletter.

NIALA: Thanks, Steven.

STEPHEN: Thanks so much.

NIALA: That’s all we’ve got for you today! Axios Today is produced by Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Our sound engineer is Alex Sugiura. Julia Redpath is our Executive Producer and Sara Kehaulani Goo is our Editor In Chief. I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here on Monday.

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