Policy. Advocacy. Change.

Food Access and Living Wages

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Post by Vicky Meath, Executive Director, Just Economics of Western North Carolina

Inflation has hit us hard at the grocery store checkout, and we have all seen our grocery bills rise from what they were pre-pandemic. Everything from pandemic-related issues to the war in Ukraine have impacted inflation on food costs. For many of us, we have had to tighten up spending or save less, but what does inflation and the rise in food prices mean for someone making less than a living wage?

Historically wages have not kept up with inflation, and while we have certainly seen many wages increase as Covid and the labor shortage changed the labor market, we still have too many people not making a living wage.

When I am talking about a living wage, I am talking about enough money for a full-time worker to be able to afford their basic needs without public or private assistance. This number can differ depending on your family size and where you live. Just Economics sets a living wage rate based on the idea that a single individual could, at the very least, make a monthly income that is three times Fair Market Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the area (a common standard needed to obtain a lease).

For 2022 that number has been $17.70/hr, and what we consider a bare minimum needed to put a roof over your head and food on your table without help. That number is for basic needs for a single individual and does not include vacations, going out to dinner, or so many of the simple luxuries many of us enjoy. So if you are making a living wage you may be able to cover all of your monthly bills, but what are people who are making $10, $12, or $14 an hour doing to get by? People figure out how to survive using creative solutions to their economic challenges like doubling up on housing, getting a side hustle, buying cheaper and less nutritious food, or standing in line at a food pantry, but the struggle is real and it doesn’t have to be that way. 

We don’t consider that a person is making a living wage for their family size until they are somewhere above 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, yet more than half the children in Asheville City and Buncombe County Schools are eligible for free and reduced lunches and living well below that threshold. So let’s be clear about the scope of this problem: Every other kid in our public schools is living in a family that cannot meet their basic needs without public or private assistance or creative solutions to their economic challenges. And according to Manna Food Bank, at least one in every four children in WNC will experience food insecurity at some point throughout the year, and the need for food in WNC is nearly double what it was pre-pandemic.

Some individuals and families are receiving SNAP benefits, otherwise known as food stamps. But food assistance is a graduated program, meaning you don’t necessarily fall off what we call the benefit’s cliff or stop receiving assistance if you start making a little more, but your assistance is reduced the more you make. SNAP benefits are based on income qualifications that are the same in New York City as they are in rural Iowa, so here in Asheville where the housing rental prices are the highest in the state, you end up spending so much more of the rest of your budget on housing, that you don’t have as much money left over in your budget for food.

For example, let’s say you are a single mom with one child working 35 hours a week at $14/hr — you are making around $2000 a month after taxes and your SNAP benefits are about $150 less than the full allotment of a person with no or very little income. If you were living in Buncombe County and renting a two-bedroom apartment for $1500/month, that would leave you $500 for utilities, transportation, healthcare, personal hygiene products and the additional money needed to meet your food budget.

Now contrast that with a person making the same amount but living in a less expensive county and paying $900/month in rent, they would receive the same amount of food assistance but have $1100/month to pay for other bills and the additional cost of food or $600 more than someone living in Buncombe County.

People who are living in poverty are often told that the answer is to get a job, but here in Buncombe County that is not always the answer. People need a LIVING WAGE job. Living wages and food security are intrinsically linked. More and more working people are struggling to keep pace with rising costs and food insecurity is growing. If we are serious about impacting food security in our community, we need to come together to help advance the City of Asheville's Food Policy Action Plan as created by the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council AND push for living wages!

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