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The US struggle to pay for food: ‘No matter how well you budget, you will run out of something’

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Brett St Amand, a 59-year-old veteran living in Georgetown, Kentucky, never planned on using food stamps. For as long as he can remember, the self-identified Republican prided himself on his independence, preferring a life in the rural outskirts of town and making his living as a self-employed horse broker.

But in the early months of the pandemic, St Amand and his wife separated, setting off a period of instability. He moved out of their longtime house, put everything he owned into a storage unit and started bouncing from one temporary home to another. During this time, St Amand – whose only steady income is a monthly VA disability check for $152 – relied heavily on local charities and churches to get by.

One day, a friend gently suggested that St Amand enroll in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap), more commonly known as food stamps. He rejected the idea at first. “I’m kind of prideful, you know?” he recalled in a recent interview. “I was embarrassed.”

Eventually, a reluctant St Amand filled out the program paperwork, and started getting $345 each month in benefits. This money meant that he could now afford his own groceries, instead of depending on the unpredictable inventories at nearby food pantries. And not only could he get staples like produce, bread, milk and water, but he could even occasionally indulge in the likes of steak and seafood. It was mundane stuff, but it also felt like a miracle. “I was doing backflips,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe that everything came together and I got it.”

So St Amand was devastated this past May, when he discovered that his Snap benefits would soon be slashed by nearly a third, from $345 to $250 a month. Immediately, he upended the way he shopped for groceries, almost entirely ditching fresh fruits and vegetables, and swapping seafood and red meat for poultry and eggs. Today, he subsists mostly on a starch-heavy diet of tortillas, rice and beans.

Brett St. Amand shops for food in a Dollar General grocery store in Georgetown, Kentucky.
Brett St. Amand shops for food in a Dollar General grocery store in Georgetown, Kentucky. Photograph: Jon Cherry/The Guardian

The turn in St Amand’s luck was the result of a controversial bill that Kentucky lawmakers passed a few weeks earlier, repealing the state’s Covid-19 emergency declaration. With that one maneuver, legislators drastically reduced the amount that Bluegrass state residents could receive in food stamps each month.

Before the repeal, the federal government had been giving recipients extra funds on top of their typical Snap allotment each month, a measure meant to mitigate heightened food insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic. These top-offs, known officially as “emergency allotments”, amounted to at least $95 per household each month, and have been credited with helping poor families across the country put dinner on the table amid tumultuous times.

However, under program rules, emergency allotments are only available in states that have a Covid-19 emergency declaration in place. So when Kentucky lawmakers voted to remove the state’s declaration last March, the extra grocery money that residents had come to rely on disappeared alongside it.

Today, at least 16 other states have done the same, arguing that extended welfare programs are to blame for high unemployment and are a waste of taxpayer money.

The total amount of food assistance lost as a result is staggering: according to a new analysis by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the Guardian, states opting out of emergency allotments have collectively relinquished nearly $4bn worth of food stamps that would have gone toward helping their poorest residents avoid going hungry.

This loss of benefits has effectively created a two-tiered welfare system across the country, in which families living under identical circumstances may receive vastly different amounts of food aid based solely on where they live.

For low-income residents, the slashing of pandemic food assistance takes both a physical and a psychological toll. Food stamp users say they’re buying fewer groceries, accumulating credit card debt they can’t pay off and even skipping meals. The lost benefits also represent millions of dollars each month that are no longer circulating within local businesses.

In affected states, food pantries say they’re seeing steeply increasing demand even as the cost of providing hunger relief has gone up due to inflation and high gas prices.

In Kentucky, lawmakers advocated for the effective repeal of pandemic food assistance by suggesting that residents no longer ‘deserved’ it.
In Kentucky, lawmakers advocated for the effective repeal of pandemic food assistance by suggesting that residents no longer ‘deserved’ it. Photograph: Jon Cherry/The Guardian

“I can draw a direct correlation between the loss of benefits and increased need that we’re seeing,” said Vincent James Sr, president and chief executive officer of the Dare to Care food bank, a network of 300 anti-hunger organizations across Kentucky and Indiana. James estimates that there’s been a 20%-30% increase in visitors across the network, even as supplies have diminished – conditions that put families at a risk of being turned away empty-handed.

“Non-profits fill that gap where the private and public sector are not providing,” James said. “When we run out of food, that means that there are going to be people that are literally starving.”

Until May, Marie Cornelius, a 71-year-old retiree in Louisville, had been receiving about $240 a month in food stamps. The money made up her entire grocery budget, which she spent at her local Kroger. The food pantries that she had long relied on shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic and have yet to reopen. (Cornelius requested to be identified only by her middle and last names.)

When Kentucky lawmakers terminated the emergency allotments, Cornelius’s Snap benefits dropped to just $20 a month, the non-pandemic amount she’s eligible for based on her social security income. Now she buys groceries with her credit card, and tries not to think about the ballooning balance that haunts her from month to month. Earlier this year, she had to pay for a car repair and unexpected vet bills. Losing emergency Snap benefits means that she’s now in debt for food, as well.

“I have other bills that need to be paid off, not grocery bills,” she said when we met up recently at a park near her home. It was a windy day and her blond curls danced around her face as she spoke.

For decades, poor Americans like Cornelius have relied heavily on the federal food stamp program to afford groceries. Covid-19 emergency allotments were first introduced in their current form in April 2021, as a way to bump up benefits for all recipients during the pandemic, with all of its attendant challenges including low employment rates and high costs of living.

Over the past year, however, states began to mull an end to their Covid-19 emergency declarations, noting a decline in cases and the widespread availability of vaccines. In Kentucky, lawmakers advocated for the effective repeal of pandemic food assistance by suggesting that residents no longer “deserved” it.

“The question we really need to ask ourselves is: are we in a state of emergency?” said Kentucky statehouse representative Thomas Huff, who presented the bill ending the Covid-19 emergency declaration during a legislative session in March. “Are the hospitals overflowing? Are the deaths skyrocketing? Are the numbers climbing? That’s the question we need to ask, not whether we can squeak by another month on free federal money.”

“I’m not really interested in continuing to draw federal funds if they’re not deserved or needed,” Huff added later in the same session.

The Kentucky state legislature eventually answered Huff’s questions resoundingly: lawmakers in both chambers voted by veto-proof majorities to end the state’s Covid-19 emergency declaration, cutting residents off from extra Snap benefits beginning May onward. (Huff’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

The lost funds translate to billions in no-strings-attached grocery money that the poorest Americans would have been able to use.
The lost funds translate to billions in no-strings-attached grocery money that the poorest Americans would have been able to use. Photograph: Jon Cherry/The Guardian

Cornelius panicked when she learned of the news while watching television one day, and decried what she felt as a lack of empathy from lawmakers for people facing hunger like herself. “[Food insecurity] can happen to anybody,” she said.

Cornelius wistfully recalled the healthy foods she used to buy with her extra food stamps. She’d eaten shrimp for the first time in years, and could even afford locally produced milk and organic fruits and vegetables. When she got dentures, she was able to buy fish like salmon, cod and tilapia, as well as frozen microwavable meals, all of which were soft on her gums.

These days, her drastically reduced benefits mean she forgoes almost all of that. Instead, Cornelius typically eats a banana for breakfast, Campbell’s soup and crackers for lunch, and a poached egg for dinner. In fact, eggs are the only food she now gets more of than ever – buying and eating approximately one carton a week – because they’re a relatively cheap source of protein, she said. But Cornelius is also supposed to be on a low-cholesterol diet, and she worries about what eating so many eggs will mean for her health.

Emergency allotments – had they remained in place – would have gone a long way for Cornelius and other Kentucky residents. In April, the final month in which the state was eligible for the benefit, over a quarter million households received nearly $53m in extra Snap benefits.

Put another way, with every passing month, the total sum of pandemic food assistance left on the table by Kentucky alone grows by tens of millions of dollars. Aggregated across all affected states, that value balloons to more than $3.9bn.

The Guardian and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project calculated this estimate as follows: for each month beginning with April 2021 – when emergency allotments were first introduced in their current form – we added up the number of households enrolled in the Snap program across all states that had eliminated the extra benefits by that point. We then multiplied the total number of affected households across all months by $95, the minimum amount of pandemic food assistance that each would have received every month.

The total amounts to more than $3.9bn through August 2022, the latest month for which federal data is available. This value is probably an undercount; while every household is guaranteed at least $95 in extra food stamps each month, under the emergency allotment policy, many got benefits worth far more. (The estimate also does not reflect lost emergency allotments between September and November, as Snap participation data for this period has not yet been released.)

The lost funds translate to billions in no-strings-attached grocery money that the poorest Americans would have been able to use to buy food over the past year – a period during which inflation has increased the cost of eating at home by 12.4%, according to the most recently available data from the US Department of Labor’s consumer price index.

Cornelius thinks a lot about what life would have been like had lawmakers not slashed her emergency Snap allotments. “It’s awful,” she said, about needing to put groceries on credit these days. “I just keep feeling like I can’t get ahead.”

Anti-hunger advocates say that the loss of emergency food assistance has been punishing for Kentucky’s poorest, who are now relying on food pantries more than ever. “We’re seeing folks that didn’t even come [earlier] during the pandemic,” said James, the president of the food bank network Dare to Care. “They’re coming now, and we’re seeing them for the first time. They’re having to decide between food and their medication, and between food and gas. And that’s an impossible choice that no one should have to make in America today. But yet, we have citizens that are making those choices.”

The increase in need has dovetailed with a number of other challenges that Dare to Care’s pantries are facing at the moment: less food to give away.

According to James, the network has seen the amount of food it receives from the federal government reduced by more than one-half in the past few months, which makes up a significant portion of the assistance it hands out to families.

Tania Whitfield stands for a portrait outside her her home in Lexington, Kentucky, on 14 October 2022.
Tania Whitfield stands for a portrait outside her home in Lexington, Kentucky, last month. Photograph: Jon Cherry/The Guardian

Tania Whitfield, 37, a single mother of two in Lexington, is one of the many Kentucky residents who have turned to food pantries occasionally for support during this time. “I only go when I really need it,” she said when we met up earlier this month.

Whitfield currently gets $740 a month in food stamps. If the state’s Covid-19 emergency declaration hadn’t been repealed, she’d be getting an additional $95 per month in emergency allotments – money that would go a long way in giving her and her daughters peace of mind.

For Whitfield’s family, the most stressful part of each month comes the week or so before their benefits run out. That’s when grocery money gets low, and Whitfield has found herself caught between buying chicken for dinner or snacks for her daughters to take to school. (Whitfield’s daughters qualify for free school breakfasts and lunches, but students have to bring their own snacks for recess.)

When this happened in September, Whitfield ultimately had little choice but to send her daughters to school empty-handed, promising them that she’d surprise them with something special once next month’s food stamps became available.

“My daughters don’t want to make me feel bad but they get comments at school like: ‘Why can’t your mom make more money?’ or ‘Why didn’t you bring a snack to school?’”

Whitfield, who’s working toward her GED, said she was fired from her most recent job as a restaurant server because she couldn’t work more than a few shifts each week. But her availability was limited by the fact that she couldn’t find affordable and safe childcare for her daughters for most of the available shifts.

She tries hard to shop frugally, but inflation at the grocery store has put even store-brand products out of reach at times. She buys household staples like frozen pizza and boxed macaroni and cheese half as often as she used to, and has eschewed fresh vegetables for frozen and canned alternatives. Family packs of chicken have gotten smaller, she says, but she feels like she’s shelling out more for them than ever.

“No matter how well you budget, you will run out of something,” she said when we met at a local cafe in October. At the time, her eldest daughter’s birthday was approaching, and Whitfield wanted to send her to school with birthday treats for her classmates. But Whitfield only had about $26 in benefits left for the rest of her Snap cycle, which wasn’t going to be enough. Whitfield eventually decided that she would borrow money from a friend to cover whatever food stamps wouldn’t.

Tania Whitfield places her items on a conveyor checkout line at a Kroger grocery store in Lexington, Kentucky, on 14 October 2022.
Tania Whitfield places her items on a conveyor checkout line at a Kroger grocery store in Lexington, Kentucky. Photograph: Jon Cherry/The Guardian

Anti-hunger advocates point out that every Snap dollar relinquished by Kentucky lawmakers is a dollar that would have circulated within the state’s economy. In April, the final month in which extra Snap money was available for Kentuckians, residents received over $52m in emergency allotments alone.

“That’s $50m not going to local farmers and grocers,” said Tyler Offerman, food justice fellow at the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, an advocacy group for low-income residents.

Other anti-hunger advocates in Kentucky said that giving people money to buy groceries doesn’t just help them avoid hunger – it also has a “multiplier effect” on the local economy. It’s one thing for people to get food from local charities, said Emily McCue, a Snap employment and training coach for a local Goodwill. “But it’s not putting money back into the community.”

In October, the federal government announced a 12.5% increase to Snap benefits across the board, as part of a standard annual cost-of-living adjustment pegged to the rate of inflation. For some, particularly those who receive a relatively high level of food stamps each month, the boost was significant.

Whitfield, the single mother in Lexington, saw an increase of more than $80 a month, which went a long way to bridging the gap left by the lost pandemic food aid. (It bears pointing out, however, that had Kentucky kept its Covid-19 emergency declaration in place, Whitfield would be getting both an extra $95 a month in emergency Snap benefits and a cost-of-living adjustment.)

But for many, the cost-of-living adjustment is cold comfort. For Cornelius, the retiree in Louisville, a 12.5% increase comes out to less than $3 a month.

Taken together, the predicaments faced by Kentuckians enrolled in the Snap program reflect not only a dire new level of food insecurity, but also a potential preview of a broader hunger crisis to come.

Should other states follow Kentucky’s lead and repeal their own Covid-19 emergency declarations, millions more Americans could find themselves facing the same hard choices faced by some Kentuckians. Then there’s a possibility that the federal government may do away with pandemic food assistance entirely.

As of right now, the continuation of federal emergency allotments is contingent on the existence of a national public health order. If that gets revoked in the coming months, it would eliminate emergency allotments for all Snap recipients, and could trigger a nationwide spike in hunger, said Ellen Vollinger, Snap director at the Food Research & Action Center, an organization that advocates against poverty.

“Food insecurity is really not rocket science,” she said. “It’s not a disease that we don’t know what to do about. The country knows what to do about food insecurity … The major factor is just a pretty obvious clearcut one, and that is: do people have enough money to be able to afford what they need?”

For St Amand, the veteran in Georgetown, the toll of getting his food stamps slashed extends far beyond the simple fact of not being able to afford food – it’s also brought a sense of dread and shame to the experience of grocery shopping.

In multiple instances, he’s had to take items out of his bags at the checkout line upon realizing that his food stamps won’t cover his bill. He credits the generosity of churches and neighbors for helping him stay afloat in the past few months.

“I’ve had people literally pay for my food and that brings tears to your eyes,” he said.


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No need to send it back: Netflix posts its final DVDs to customers



Most of Netflix’s 238 million streaming customers around the world will be unaware that the company first launched 25 years ago as a DVD mailing service. Even fewer might realise that operation has continued, with under 1 million people still subscribing.

But now the company is finally hitting the stop button, with its five remaining US distribution centres mailing out their final discs to American customers on Friday.

These DVD diehards will be allowed to keep these titles rather than return them, meaning some will get up to 10 as a goodbye present from a business that boasted as many as 16 million subscribers at its peak.

“It is very bittersweet,” Marc Randolph, Netflix’s co-founder and the chief executive when the company shipped its first DVD, told Associated Press. “We knew this day was coming, but the miraculous thing is that it didn’t come 15 years ago.”

Netflix does not break out the number of DVD subscribers in its figures, but according to an AP estimate fewer than 1 million people now subscribe to the service.

Randolph came up with the idea of a DVD-by-post service in 1997 – in a challenge to then rental market leader Blockbuster – with his friend and fellow entrepreneur, Reed Hastings, who eventually succeeded Randolph as CEO. He only stepped aside from that role this year.

The first disc sent out by Netflix was Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice in March 1998 and since then the company has shipped 5.2bn of them. Its most popular title was the Sandra Bullock vehicle The Blind Side.

However, Randolph said he knew that DVDs would not be the mainstay of the business and would be overtaken by watching films and TV shows through internet connections.

In 2011 Netflix decided to separate the DVD business from the streaming business, one year after Blockbuster went bankrupt – having turned down an opportunity in 2000 to buy Netflix for $50m (£41m) instead of trying to compete against it. The streaming giant is now worth about $166bn.

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“From day one, we knew DVDs would go away, that this was transitory step,” Randolph said. “And the DVD service did that job miraculously well. It was like an unsung booster rocket that got Netflix into orbit and then dropped back to Earth after 25 years. That’s pretty impressive.”

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Evergrande halts share trading as woes mount for China property giant

Embattled Chinese property giant Evergrande has suspended share trading on the Hong Kong stock exchange only a month after it resumed trading after a 17-month suspension.

Trading in its two other units – the property services and electric vehicle groups – also stopped at 9am on Thursday, according to notices posted by the stock exchange.

The halt in trading comes a day after reports that the chair of Evergrande had been put under police surveillance. Hui Ka Yan, who founded Evergrande in 1996, was taken away earlier this month and is being monitored at a designated location, according to Bloomberg.

It is not clear why Hui might have been placed under residential surveillance, which falls short of a formal detention or police arrest and does not mean a criminal charge follows.

Evergrande had only resumed trading on 28 August after the company was suspended for 17 months for not publishing its financial results. Earlier this month, several employees of Evergrande’s wealth management unit were arrested in Shenzhen on unspecified charges.

Two former executives were also reportedly detained recently. Pan Darong and Xia Haijun had resigned last year after it emerged that 13.4bn yuan (£1.5bn) of deposits had been used as security for third-party loans.

Earlier this week, Hengda Real Estate, Evergrande’s primary unit in mainland China, missed principal and interest payments on a 4bn yuan bond. Hui resigned from his position as Hengda chair in 2021.

On Sunday, Evergrande said it was unable to issue new debt as Hengda was being investigated.

And on Friday it said meetings planned this week on a key debt restructuring plan would not take place, adding it was “necessary to reassess the terms” of the plan in order to suit the “objective situation and the demand of the creditors”.

China’s property sector is a key pillar of growth – along with construction, it accounts for about a quarter of GDP – and has experienced a dazzling boom in recent decades.

The massive debt accrued by the industry’s biggest players has, however, been seen by Beijing in recent years as an unacceptable risk for the financial system and overall economic health.

Authorities have gradually tightened developers’ access to credit since 2020 and a wave of defaults has followed – notably that of Evergrande.

Another Chinese property giant, Country Garden, narrowly avoided default in recent months, after reporting a record loss and debts of more than $150bn.

Agence France-Presse contributed to this report

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Musk ditches X’s election integrity team ahead of key votes around world

Elon Musk, owner of X, has confirmed he has ditched his team working to prevent disruption to elections, just days after the EU announced the platform, formerly known as Twitter, had the highest proportion of disinformation in three European countries.

Ahead of 70 elections around the globe in the coming year, the controversial businessman confirmed on X: “Oh you mean the ‘Election Integrity’ Team that was undermining election integrity? Yeah, they’re gone.”

According to reports, several staff working out of the Dublin office including the co-lead of election disinformation team, Aaron Rodericks, have left the company.

Overnight Musk appeared to give his first reaction to EU claims that X had the highest ratio of disinformation of the large social media platforms with a picture of three penguins bearing the logos of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube saluting another penguin bearing the X logo.

Rodericks had recently secured an injunction against the company restraining the company from taking disciplinary action after he had posted information about the company’s recruitment of staff for his team on his personal account.

He claimed the company did nothing after he had been subjected to a barrage of abuse from people who accused him of trying to suppress freedom of speech on X.

Last month he posted an advert on LinkedIn for eight new roles revealing he was seeking people with a “passion for protecting the integrity of elections and civic events, X is certainly at the centre of the conversation”.

Sweeping new laws came into force in August, compelling social media platforms to remove fake accounts, disinformation and hate speech, with X rivals Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Google and Microsoft all taking action and reporting back to the EU.

While Twitter quit the code of practice designed by the EU to help the companies comply with the new laws, Musk promised earlier this year he would comply with the rules.

Concerns over the platform’s approach to content moderation under Musk’s leadership have triggered an advertising boycott of the company, which relies on ads for the majority of its income.

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Musk has admitted that advertising revenues have fallen by about 60% since he bought the business last year and has blamed anti-hate speech campaign groups for the decline. He is suing the Center for Countering Digital Hate over its coverage of X and has also threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League, which has raised concerns about antisemitic content on the platform.

Farhad Divecha, managing director of London-based digital marketing agency Accuracast, said: “The fact that Elon Musk seems to have disbanded the team that deals with election integrity sends a clear signal that preventing disinformation or maintaining a level of integrity isn’t a priority for X. This is one more factor adding to the concerns about brand safety, or ensuring brands aren’t associated with objectionable content.”

The company was approached for comment.

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