Food pantries are feeling the pinch
Inflation and supply chain problems are putting pressure on families and local distribution centers
On a scorching Tuesday in Cedar Park, Texas, a line of idling cars maneuvered its way through a path of bright orange cones in a church parking lot right off a busy roadway. The cars inched forward toward three bright red canopies that sheltered boxes of bread and produce. Volunteers packed cardboard boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables and bread, meat, eggs, and bags full of dry good staples onto green carts. Then, they loaded the groceries into the cars that quickly filled the three loading spots.
The line has only gotten longer during the past few months. Last week, Reveal Resource Center served 212 families in an hour. Often, the line stretches down the road and around the corner onto busy U.S. 183. Their numbers skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic and then plateaued. But now they’re climbing again. Reveal is one of many food pantries feeling the economic pinch. As staff and volunteers welcome more community members, ministries are struggling with inflated operating costs and supply chain problems.
Inside the building, volunteers organized dry goods. Pallets stacked with jars of peanut butter, canned salmon, and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup lined the walls. Outside, three large freezers shelter perishable food from the 90 degree heat.
Reveal gets donations and food that’s about to expire from local stores, but it orders some staple items from the Central Texas Food Bank in Austin. “When we first started … there were four [pages] of food that you could choose from. Now it’s one sheet,” said Executive Director Susan Schaffer. Because of supply chain problems, they haven’t seen tomato sauce in a while. The food bank warned that cereal could be next. Meat is also running low. Last month, Reveal spent $2,000 extra when they ran out of black beans. The food bank didn’t have any, either.
At their next board meeting, Schaffer said, they will discuss whether to cut down the amount of food given to each family. She talks to every client as she helps check them in. “A lot of people are having to make a decision on whether to buy medical supplies or pay their doctor bills or pay their rent,” she said.
On Tuesday, the Labor Department reported its consumer price index rose 8.3 percent in August compared to the same month last year. It soared to 9.1 percent in June, the highest inflation rate in four decades. Food prices climbed to 11.4 percent over the past year—the highest 12-month increase since May 1979. A 2021 Urban Institute survey found that 1 in 6 adults rely on charitable food.
Sari Vatske is the president and CEO of Central Texas Food Bank, one of 200 Feeding America food banks throughout the country. The food bank receives food from retailers, manufacturers, distributors, and agricultural products. “There’s longer wait times even if we do purchase food,” she said. The food bank partners with 250 smaller organizations to serve 21 counties and over 430,000 food insecure individuals.
Plus, grocery stores are donating less. As more people order their groceries online, stores are able to run their inventories more efficiently. “As they become more efficient in purchasing and selling, that means less donations for food banks,” Vatske said.
Food pantries are also seeing a new crowd. “The face of hunger continues to surprise folks,” said Vatske. Last year, the federal government expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Program, SNAP, by about 25 percent. Angela Rachidi, a poverty studies expert for the American Enterprise Institute, said the increased demand at food pantries reflects households that don’t qualify for SNAP because they make too much money or just aren’t interested in government programs.
“They are people that are out there working and they make just enough money,” said Schaeffer. With spiking gas and food prices, “they just can’t afford everything anymore.”
In Pomona, Calif., Jessica Palomo is surprised by some of the families who drive through God’s Pantry. But a nice car can hide food insecurity for only so long. God’s Pantry feeds about 500 families out of its warehouse every Wednesday and 250 on Sundays.
“We really try to break that stigma of using it. We’re there if you need it,” said Haley Calabro. She directs the St. Augustine Wellston Center, a food pantry in St. Louis, Mo. They only ask for proof of a client’s residence in one of the three zip codes they serve. Their numbers jumped significantly during the pandemic but had plateaued to 500-600 per month. Over the past few months, they’ve seen another increase. Last month they served 705. The month before that? 896. The center purchases a lot of the groceries it gives out, typically $1,000-$1,500 per month. In May, they started seeing a spike in clients and spent $17,000 that month. “It’s been crazy expensive,” she said.
The Agape Center in southwest Virginia serves about 600 families a month. Director Susan English said her numbers are also increasing. Families hit hard by inflated gas prices are struggling to even get to the center in Moneta, Va., an unincorporated community with no access to public transportation.
The solution to greater demand at food pantries is more work, not more government spending, Rachidi argues. The federal government already funds most food banks through the Emergency Food Assistance Program. “The labor market is still fairly tight,” she said. Instead of looking to the government to solve every problem, she believes a “holistic approach” that equips people to climb the ladder in the workforce is key.
Often, a lack of social capital holds people back even more than a lack of financial capital or food. Without connections and mentors, it can be difficult to get and keep a good job. Near Cincinnati, Ohio, Kevin Peyton tries a different approach. Joshua’s Place works to help families achieve long-term stability. In 2008, it opened a simple food pantry but saw little change in the clients it served. “We were doing a lot of things that never really seemed to do any good,” he said
Their food pantry became a food cooperative. To be members, clients have to meet with someone they call a “coordinator” or an “ally,” people who have more in-depth training than a typical volunteer. They pray with people about their root issues, not just their lack of food, and have tough conversations when necessary.
Clients also pay $5 every time they come and take at least one developmental course—classes on faith, parenting, addiction recovery, and finances—throughout the year. Their waiting list is always full of people who want to join the co-op. Members come bi-weekly and select 40 points worth of groceries from an order form. Over 120 families have become members.“The lack of food is a symptom,” he said, “the sources [of the problem] are a much deeper issue.”