A woman stands in her kitchen holding a plastic zipper bag of food.
Stephanie Newell freezes the free squash from her community garden to cook for her family throughout the year. Photo by Ariel Cobbert for MLK50

Stephanie Newell holds down two jobs, working seven days a week — clocking 50 to 60 hours — to make ends meet for herself, her spouse and their two sons. 

She splits her time, working weekdays at the University of Memphis campus bookstore while waiting tables on weekends. Between this and her spouse’s job at the U of M’s graduate school, they earn just enough money to provide for their family, covering utilities, car payments and the mortgage on a home purchased in Vollintine-Evergreen about a year ago. 

Once bills are settled, the rest of their budget is spent keeping up with the rising food costs.

“This day and time, due to inflation, $100 will get you three bags of groceries, and that’s it. That’s not going to feed a family,” Newell said.

In the South, prices on the basics, like food and energy, have been steadily increasing since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020. And for families like the Newells, it’s reached a tipping point. With record-breaking inflation driving grocery costs up 11%, surging food prices are weighing heavily on working-class and low-wealth residents in Memphis, a city that’s been previously dubbed the “hunger capital of the U.S.” 

This has caused some families to make sacrifices to adjust to inflation: finding inexpensive ways to spend time together, changing their shopping and eating habits and relying more on community support like food banks.

In Memphis, 23% of the population lives in poverty, compared to a national rate of 13%, according to the 2022 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet. Of all residents in the Memphis metropolitan area, 17% of people work in transportation and material-moving industries, with the average worker in these industries earning about $19 an hour – just over $36,400 annually. The MIT Living Wage Calculator estimates a working adult with one child in Memphis must earn $58,000 or more to survive, but the city’s median household income hovers around $44,000.

The city sits at a cruel crossroads of sorts, too. Many Memphians live at least a half-mile away from the nearest grocery store. The most affected residents are those who live in low-wealth, majority-Black neighborhoods in northern and southern parts of Memphis. To make matters more difficult, many residents in these areas don’t have their own car, preventing them from easily getting to and from grocery stores.

So, as inflation sends not just food, but gas prices soaring, the stakes are especially high. 

Coping with the cost

Food is seen behind the glass panels in kitchen cupboards.
Newell and her family turn to a local free Facebook group to fill up her pantry with food. Photo by Ariel Cobbert for MLK50

The Newells now spend about $900 a month on food, compared to last year’s $600 monthly grocery tab. To make meals stretch, Newell has a fine-tuned process in place. She shops for groceries weekly and in bulk, buying certain dairy products and less-expensive meats, like ground beef and chicken, from Cash Saver and Aldi. She intentionally avoids shopping at Walmart and Kroger, a habit formed this year because the stores’ prices are “ridiculously high,” she said.

Relying on more affordable food, Newell completely cut pork, steak and some fresh fruits and vegetables from the family’s grocery list to make money stretch a bit longer. She also depends on support from the Memphis community, using local organizations, like the Mid-South Food Bank and 901 Community Fridges, along with “buy nothing, sell nothing” groups on Facebook, to help the family fill in the gaps caused by inflation.

When her two sons ask why some of their groceries come in boxes, like those from the food bank, Newell says they’re doing the best they can with the current situation. “I tell them nice people in the community are helping us out on food so we can spend our money on the house payment, or the truck payment or MLGW —  that’s killing us, too,” she said.

Joyce Harris, who works as an agency customer service representative at the Mid-South Food Bank, said she’s seen an increase in people who rely on their services. According to the food bank, which serves residents of West Tennessee, North Mississippi and Southeast Arkansas, food insecurity has increased 44% in the region.

“The way the price of meat is, I feel like I’m just over meat.”

Kayla Brooks, freelance facilitator and yoga instructor

“[People are] barely holding on,” Harris said. 

The Mid-South Food Bank distributes about 4 million meals a month to people in the region, and on an average day, Harris said the food bank serves anywhere from 300 to 600 people. Harris has seen people of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds using the food bank more frequently, especially this year. 

According to the September 2022 Consumer Price Index Report, overall inflation is up 8% nationally and nearly 9% here in the South. Some of the biggest cost increases are in dining out at 13%, housing at about 15% and energy at nearly 20%. 

The Newells spend about $400 on MLGW services each month, with their mortgage and car payments over $1,000 each, plus wifi at about $60. “I don’t really have much [money] left, to be honest with you,” Newell said. “It’s basically survival mode.”

“It’s getting harder and harder to live.”

Stephanie Newell, a wife and mother of two who works two jobs

Like Newell, Kayla Brooks, who works as a freelance facilitator and yoga instructor, has cut some food from her diet, limiting her favorite seafood staples like shrimp and buying mostly chicken and some fish. Brooks, whose diet consists of mostly fruits and vegetables, shops at local farmers markets and noticed a price jump earlier this year.

“Corn was basically one ear for a dollar. In previous years you could get like three ears for a dollar,” she said. “The way the price of meat is, I feel like I’m just over meat,” Brooks said.

Brooks also limits how much she spends on fresh produce so she can eat it all before it goes bad, making an intentional effort to reduce food — and financial — waste. From August to September, the price of apples increased 5%, while lettuce increased almost 7%, and potatoes rose 3.5%, all contributing to an 11% overall food index increase.

As a single woman with no children, Brooks has opted to spend less money on dining out and searches for free and inexpensive ways to spend time with family and friends. Instead of spending $40 at a happy hour, Brooks is spending more of her free time at her home, at friends’ and families’ homes, communing over home-cooked meals and homemade cocktails. 

“You used to be able to get out of a happy hour with $20,” Brooks said. “Now…I’m always like, do I really want a cocktail? Or let’s go to the liquor store, and we could drink at home for less.”

For her, it’s not just about saving money. It’s also about leaning into one of the greatest resources she says one can utilize: the community. Brooks said she’s thinking more about how to spend time with others without breaking the bank, asking herself and others, “how can we make these fellowship opportunities affordable and meaningful for everybody involved?”

Looking ahead to the holiday season, Brooks has made a pact not to buy or participate in any gift-giving this fall and winter, and the Newell family is planning to spend any extra money on food and needs for the family.

“It just sucks, dealing with COVID, dealing with monkeypox and high gas prices, and now inflation of groceries. It’s getting harder and harder to live,” Newell said.

Envisioning a solution

A Black woman looks at vegetables.
Roshun Austin checks out produce at the South Memphis Farmers Market on Mississippi Boulevard in 2015. Austin is the president CEO of The Works Inc. which also recently launched a new North Memphis mobile grocer. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Roshun Austin, president and CEO of The Works Inc., intimately knows how food insecurity and inflated grocery prices wreak havoc on people’s lives. A 28-year veteran in her field, Austin’s organization focuses on community development and revitalizing low-wealth, majority-Black neighborhoods in the northern and southern parts of Memphis — the same areas struggling the most with food insecurity.

The organization just launched its Mobile Grocer, a grocery store on wheels, to serve residents in the Klondike, Frayser, Smokey City and North Memphis areas. On the other side of the city is the South Memphis Farmers Market

Both the mobile grocery store and the farmers market sell and incentivize healthy, affordable food in areas known as food deserts – “areas where res­i­dents have few to no con­ve­nient options for secur­ing afford­able and healthy foods, espe­cial­ly fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles” and are “dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly found in high-pover­ty areas.”

Aside from increasing people’s access to healthier food options, Austin wants to see the city of Memphis take steps to address the root causes of food insecurity and inflation by establishing a citywide food policy council. One that’s “led and guided by people that understand that space,” she said, like public health workers, social workers, food banks, community development groups, grocery retailers, mom-and-pop corner store owners and more. 

Austin envisions this council as a way to inform and lobby for policy at the city and state level, with the goal of making healthy food affordable and accessible for all, especially amid skyrocketing inflation. 

Some potential outcomes of this sort of community-led council, Austin imagines, could be establishing grocery cooperatives and farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods. It could also mean incentivizing grocery retailers to match costs and offer benefits to SNAP and TANF recipients, many of whom don’t have the resources to shield themselves and their families from the brunt of inflation, the rising cost of living and expensive groceries.

“Some people say we’re headed toward a recession. Some people say we’re not,” Austin said. “For low-income people, it’s always a recession.”

Brittany Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at brittany.brown@mlk50.com

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