Sofia Suarez, a receptionist at a Chicago dental office, was out of work for about three months during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Due to reduced hours, her income has not fully recovered nearly a year and a half later. With mounting bills and rising food prices, she visits the Lakeview Food Pantry in Chicago every month or two for free groceries.

Suarez, like the more than 4 million Americans classified as “underemployed” by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in October, slipped through the cracks in the United States government’s multibillion-dollar effort to alleviate financial uncertainty during the pandemic.

As the U.S. economy roared back from lockdowns in 2020 this year, low and middle-income Americans felt the most acute hunger pangs. Ironically, hunger has persisted for many, despite the fact that vast sums of government money spent on the crisis helped lift nearly 12 million Americans out of poverty.

There is ample evidence that the job market is rapidly recovering, with roughly one and a half vacant jobs for every unemployed worker. However, rising wages, which are only now starting to entice more reluctant Americans back to work, are being far outpaced by inflation, with the cost of food purchased for home consumption alone increasing by 6.4 percent in the year through November.

According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, 19.8 million American households reported being food insecure during the first two weeks of October, which is defined as “sometimes or often” not having enough to eat. Pulse Survey of the Census Bureau According to the survey, 8 percent of US households experienced hunger prior to the pandemic, a figure that peaked at 14 percent last December and is expected to remain elevated at 9 percent in October 2021.

When only the poorest households, those earning less than $25,000 per year, are considered, 27 percent reported not having enough to eat, compared to 23 percent prior to the pandemic.

Direct stimulus checks, increased unemployment benefits, emergency rental assistance, and increased food stamp allotments were all part of the federal pandemic response. However, these programs can be difficult to navigate.

Suarez, who does not have children, said her husband tried to get unemployment insurance but was frustrated by the system, so they both decided to cut back on spending and make do with less.

Families with children qualified for more benefits than Suarez, such as advanced child tax credits, expanded access to school meals, and pandemic-EBT debit cards to pay for meals while students were learning from home.

However, rising food prices have made it more difficult for families to keep up with their grocery bills. According to the United Nations, global food prices rose for the fourth month in a row in November, remaining at a 10-year high.

Food inflation puts additional strain on food pantries attempting to combat hunger. Many organizations are expanding their services beyond providing food to assisting people in accessing federal and state aid programs.

As the United States’ emergency aid expires, the political will to renew food aid is called into question. The latest version of the $1.8 trillion “Build Back Better” budget package includes funding for year-round free school meals as well as an extension of the child tax credit. It does not increase federal food purchases for local pantries, which have been a lifeline for food banks in the last year. The bill is still being fought over because of its high price tag, and it may be amended further.

It took years for American workers to recover from the previous major recession, which occurred prior to the COVID-19 downturn. According to Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research and Action Center, a hunger advocacy organization, cutting aid too soon could cause a second wave of food insecurity, similar to what happened just over a decade ago after the 2008 financial crisis.

Hunger rose sharply following the 2008 recession, when federal stimulus and extended unemployment benefits were phased out. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual food security report, hunger rates will not return to pre-recession levels until 2019.