Food banks across the country will enter this holiday season with their resources strained as inflation continues to pummel the economy.
Soaring food prices and a drop in donations mean many food bank warehouses are more thinly stocked than in recent years, said Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer at Feeding America, a nonprofit overseeing a network of more than 200 food banks across the country.
Meanwhile, some food banks report they are busier than they were during the worst of the economic shutdown during the pandemic in 2020, Fitzgerald told USA TODAY.
Earlier this year, over 150 of Feeding America’s 200 food banks reported seeing increased or steady demand for services as food prices increased.
“With the demand being so great, the supply being so short, and inflation being high, it’s just a perfect storm for long lines at the bank,” San Antonio Food Bank’s president Eric Cooper told USA TODAY.
In the Alamo City, there aren’t enough turkeys for all who would like one for their Thanksgiving meal this year, he said.
“We’re still pressing forward to make sure we can make it happen for those families,” Cooper said. “But the reality is we’re having to substitute … every day right now.”
Food prices are up
Food banks get their food through multiple ways, including buying it themselves, so rising food prices are a problem, Fitzgerald said.
“The story of 2022 is inflation, the inflationary food prices,” she said, adding the price of turkey was up 17% in September.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, one of the biggest bankrollers of food bank supplies, is having a harder time purchasing food for charitable purposes because it too is dealing with inflation in the market, according to Fitzgerald.
At the West Seattle Food Bank, demand has remained just as high as during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and food is still being given out in the nonprofit’s parking garage and via home delivery, to maintain social distancing.
With no end in sight to increasing food prices, the food bank’s Executive Director Fran Yeatts said she doesn’t know how they will continue serving at their current level.
“There’s more folks that need our services, but then on the flip side it’s harder for us to be able to purchase as much,” she said.
Among Feeding America network food banks, over 40% are running a budget deficit in their attempt to have enough food.
“And that is just not sustainable,” Fitzgerald said.
Donations have dropped
Cooper and Yeatts said their food banks saw an influx of cash and food donations during the first year of the pandemic, but donations have since dropped.
The West Seattle Food Bank is “dipping into reserves” for the second year in a row, relying on the monetary donations squirreled away from two years ago. But, of course, “it can’t last forever,” Yeatts said.
The year ending in June saw a 7% decrease in donated food compared to the prior year, according to data from Feeding America.
With less food donated by the public, food banks will have to continue to buy food themselves and battle inflation.
Feeding America network food banks purchased 18% more pounds of food from July-September 2022, compared to the same time in 2021, according to Fitzgerald.
Food banks and pantries across the country have also historically gotten donations from manufacturers with surplus supplies on their hands.
The San Antonio Food Bank could usually rely on truckloads of cereal and other shelf-stable items from big-name factories hundreds of miles away, Cooper said.
But changes in the labor market and overall economy caused food makers to operate with less staff in recent years and they’ve scaled back their operations to make them more “efficient,” according to Cooper.
“And that just squeezed out the food banks,” Cooper said.
One piece of good news: Families on food stamps are just beginning to feel the program’s recent 12.5% jump in benefits to account for inflation.
Food bank struggles affect families
In Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, John Brzozowski’s bi-monthly meal services at the River of Life food pantry have gone from serving 35 people to serving 60, the pastor said.
“There’s definitely a much higher demand” in the community he serves, Brzozowski said, and the same people go to two or three other food banks per week, he said.
The people who come to River of Life food pantry aren’t going without, but they’re walking away with lighter loads.
“We often offer our clients less,” Brzozowski said. “Instead of two meat items, you might only have one.”
The effects of an unforgiving pandemic, persistent inflation and a sense of uncertainty about the future can be seen on the faces of families who come to the food bank hungry, some seeking help for the first time, Cooper said.
“They’re been pushed over the edge a while ago. So they’re still over the edge and they’ve been able to mask some of the hopelessness that they feel,” he said, adding that people’s “mental health fragility” can’t be underestimated.
“Things have really changed and it’s really difficult to plan for the future,” Yeatts said. “It’s difficult in a way that it hasn’t ever been before, and I’ve been doing this for a long time – just because things feel so uncertain.”
Contributing: Jim Sergent