Niki Sampson, executive director of the Klamath-Lake Counties Food bank in southern Oregon, has seen 250 additional households coming in for food assistance since May.
“Nearly 85% have never had to use a food bank program,” Sampson said, stressing the rise of seniors and residents with disabilities needing help. “Since January, it’s been inflation, inflation, inflation.”
The Oregon food bank serves approximately 5,100 households annually across rural areas near the California border.
Across the country, food banks and pantries are feeling both ends of the economic strains over inflation and higher food prices.
The community lifelines are seeing significant increases in demand while also wrestling with higher grocery and other costs.
Valerie Keeney, public relations coordinator for Hocking-Athens-Perry Community Action, which operates the Southeast Ohio Food Bank and other community assistance programs, said food assistance demand is up 60% from January.
“Items that are increasingly expensive at the grocery store are often in high-demand, including protein and dairy items. However many families are seeking the basics — peanut butter, cereal, soup, and produce. We also serve many seniors and families with children — so we try to stock some items that are easy to prepare without many other ingredients,” she said.
Like other food banks, Keeney also said the Ohio-based food bank is seeing its costs rise.
Food prices are up 13.1% from a year ago and were up 1.3% in one month, according to the latest Consumer Price Index.
Bread prices are up 13.7% compared with a year ago and were up 1.6% from June to July. Other prices are also hammering consumers including year-over-year increases for flour (22.7%), chicken (17.6%), produce (9.3%) and baby food (15%), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We are seeing inflation really take a bite out of people’s budgets,” said Liz Seefeldt, executive director for The Brick Ministries, which operates food pantries in the Ashland, Wisconsin, area near Lake Superior.
Seefeldt said her operations serve rural areas of northern Wisconsin and there is demand for fresh produce, dairy and meat products.
“They are looking at ways they can trim their budgets,” she said, pointing to the trends in rural areas as well as some urban food deserts where residents will shop for food at dollar stores.
Some food banks are still recovering from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic when shutdowns and public health concerns closed more public operations and decreased the number of volunteers — especially older ones.
Seefeldt said before the pandemic hit in 2020, Brick Ministries had four paid staff members and approximately 200 volunteers.
“Now we are 145,” she said.
The rise in gasoline prices this year has especially strained rural communities where commutes are longer and higher paying jobs and professions can be scarce.
Sampson said southern Oregon residents can commute as much as 50 miles every day to work.
“What we hear most, ‘I can’t afford the extra gas costs to get to work, so we pull from our grocery budget, leaving us short,’” Sampson said. “These are middle income people who don’t ask for help.”
Gas prices hit record levels across the country in June, including Oregon ($5.55 per gallon), California ($6.44 per gallon) and nationally ($5.02 per gallon), according to AAA. Those prices have eased since June but are still up compared with a year ago.
The inflation wave comes after food banks and pantries saw surges in need with the job losses and pay cuts that swept through the U.S. and the global economies.
“Pre-pandemic, our food bank was distributing enough food for 150,000 meals per day to the community. During the pandemic, that swelled to more than 300,000 meals per day. We are still putting 250,000 meals out the door each day,” said Greg Higgerson, chief development officer for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.
“The additional demand is driven by the sheer numbers of people who live right at the financial tipping point in our society. When faced with a perfect storm of higher fuel costs, grocery costs, and other expenses across the board, families that were barely making their bills suddenly have to make even more difficult choices,” he said.
One of the byproducts of inflation and food insecurity is that it propels increased purchases of cheaper and less nutritious processed and non-perishable foods.
“When it comes to food, it is an unfortunate fact that the most affordable choices that are available also tend to be the most unhealthy ones,” Higgerson said. “High starch and sugar, high sodium, highly processed foods cost much less on a ‘cost-per-calorie’ basis. As a result, our low-income neighbors are at a very disproportionately high risk of developing chronic health issues such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and other problems.”
Higher costs for food banks
Congress opted not to continue the universal free school lunch effort launched during the pandemic and is pulling back on some other COVID-related programs and disbursements.
Extending free school meals to all public school students nationwide cost an additional $11 billion in spending and helped approximately 10 million kids.
Senate Republicans pressed against a continuation of the additional spending, prompting the pullback despite the tidal wave of domestic and military spending during and throughout the pandemic.
That could further increase food insecurity and is also conspiring with higher prices to strain food banks and pantries when they are most needed.
Brenda Shaw, chief development officer for the Low Country Food Bank in South Carolina, said food costs are up as much as 40% and transportation outlays have been up as much as 50% during the current inflation wave. She said independent truckers who help the regional food bank have been hit hard by higher fuel and other costs.
“For example, a truckload of canned tuna cost $46,000 in February 2020 and is now $57,000, a truckload of peanut butter was approximately $34,000 and is now $40,000, and a truckload of diced tomatoes was $15,000 and is now $23,000,” Shaw said. “Overall transportation costs are up more than 20%, and the average cost per load to deliver produce from the Southeast has increased 50% from $1,200 to $1,500 before the pandemic to $2,400 to $3,000 now.”
Shaw said the Charleston-based group saw 150 to 160 visitors per month before the pandemic and as many as 1,000 a month during the depths of the coronavirus and its economic impacts.
“In January 2022, we served 358 visitors. In July, 2022 that number increased to 521 visitors through our front door,” she said.
In Oregon, Sampson said her operations’ food costs are up as much as 30%.
The latest CPI showed year-over-year increases for everything from bacon (9.2%) and coffee (20.3%) to bananas (7.4%) and eggs (38%).
The Maryland Food Bank — which operates in Baltimore, Hagerstown and Maryland’s Eastern Shore — is also seeing pronounced increases in costs.
The food bank projects its new fiscal year — which started in July — will see an 18% jump in food distribution and programming costs.
Officials said before the pandemic the Maryland operations were buying roughly 12 million pounds of food annually at 45 cents per pound. For the new fiscal year, MFB plans on buying 25 million pounds of food at 88 cents per pound.
Food pantries and assistance programs have also been hit by supply chain shortages including for items such as coffee, cereals, condiments and boxed meals such as Hamburger Helper.
That is according to Catie Badsing, food security programs manager for the Sun Prairie Emergency Food Pantry in the Madison, Wisc., area.
She said plenty of local residents are also feeling a one-two punch of higher prices and reduced assistance.
“Inflation is a huge factor in driving demand. Also, there is less cash assistance available for families and households,” Badsing said, referring to the pull back or elimination of COVID relief and financial assistance to lower-income households.
“In 2021 households were able to count on pandemic EBT benefits, child tax credit deposits, and stimulus checks. These infusions of cash directly into people’s pockets meant they didn’t need to visit the pantry as often (or at all) to make ends meet. So not only are prices higher, but people have less money available,” Badsing said.