People are returning to food banks because the price of food is so high
Many were former clients who thought they'd never need pantries again. But food prices are skyrocketing.
Published Mar 25, 2022 in The Philadelphia Inquirer
When Renae Shultz shops for food at the nearby Aldi, she brings along a calculator to make sure she stays under budget and away from the better cuts of meat.
A school bus driver, Shultz, 41, and her husband, a mechanic, live with their five children, ages 3 to 15, in a mobile home in Honey Brook, Chester County.
For a while, the family had been doing well enough to stop going to the Honey Brook Food Pantry. But soaring food prices have recently compelled Shultz to return.
“I try not to use the pantry,” she said. “I think other people are more deserving. And I have my grandmother’s pride, a woman who started her own greenhouse years ago. But you do what you have to do to survive. Money got so tight. And my kids have to eat, so. …”
Growing numbers of people are flocking to food pantries in the Philadelphia area as well as across the country because of increasing food costs, fueled by inflation. Food prices have risen more than 7% since October, at the same time nationwide pandemic benefits have been ending, according to the Consumer Price Index.
The Honey Brook Pantry has seen a 35% increase of families coming in compared to last March, said director Ken Ross. “We’ve been having some very busy days,” he said.
Ross isn’t alone.
“I feel that, quite frankly, the outlook is bleak,” said Cindy Wedholm, executive director of the Mattie N. Dixon Community Cupboard in Ambler.
“But because we live in an affluent area, people just don’t understand the family next door may be struggling to put food on the table.”
Share Food Program, the area’s largest food bank that supplies around 500 pantries and other sites in Philadelphia as well as in Delaware and Montgomery Counties, saw 14,000 new individuals at its Philadelphia pantries alone in January and February. And last month, Share distributed around 1.1 million pounds of food to its Philadelphia pantries, about 136,000 pounds more than in January, according to figures from Share.
Meanwhile, meat prices are up 25% to 40%, Share reported. As Passover approaches, Kosher beef prices increased as much as $2 a pound, said Brian Gralnick a director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which runs four food pantries.
“It’s really not a surprise that people are returning to our pantries,” said George Matysik, executive director of Share.
The end of the Child Tax Credit extension in December, as well as the termination of enhanced unemployment benefits and other pandemic assistance programs, are adding to the difficulties families face, according to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Washington.
And, Matysik pointed out, by June 30, child nutrition waivers that had been put in place during the pandemic to feed schoolchildren are expected to cease.
“Millions of children relied on those waivers to eat — 300,000 kids around Philly alone,” Matysik said.
Meanwhile, the Food Bank of South Jersey, which supplies pantries in Camden, Gloucester, Burlington, and Salem Counties, is distributing food at levels almost 10% percent higher than pre-pandemic numbers, a spokesperson said. Between January and last month, food distribution jumped nearly 16% — a 156,000-pound increase.
At the Philabundance food bank, which supplies around 300 pantries, CEO Loree Jones reported that since 2019, the average cost of a truckload of food has gone up from $2,000 to $3,000.
“What we’re hearing among our clients is that need is increasing,” Jones said. “I’m no psychologist, but I know they’re feeling so much emotional pressure and stress.”
In Bucks County, families of four were spending 15% to 20% on monthly food budgets before the pandemic, said Marissa Christie, president and CEO of United Way of Bucks County. Now they’re paying up to 24% on food.
That’s a difference keenly felt by Jean Rossi, 27, of Bristol, who is disabled and lives on a federal stipend. Her fiance, a forklift operator, works two jobs to support the family, which includes a 10-month-old son and a daughter, 3.
“We were fine and had enough money for food, but now it’s a struggle,” said Rossi, who recently returned to a nearby pantry she thought she’d never need to enter again. “Our kids are growing and eat so much. We thought we were on top of the world, but prices of food are ridiculous.
“And don’t get me started on gas.”
Gas prices have exceeded $4 a gallon — the highest since 2008 — primarily because the Russian war with Ukraine has affected the cost of oil worldwide, according to AAA.
That’s yet another budget buster for low-income families, said Pastor Patricia Neale, executive director of Feast of Justice in Mayfair, one of the largest pantries in Philadelphia.
“People were able to hang in there during the pandemic because of federal help,” Neale said. “But they flat out cannot afford groceries any more.”
She told the story of a client who thought she was done with receiving pantry food, but now must wait in line for it again. “She doesn’t want to rely on others once more,” said Neale, who’s had to open her pantry an extra day each week. “Families are tired, and there is a high frustration level, and a fear that’s absolutely prevalent.
“But they’re feeling that the pantry is the only answer.”
Such is the case for Peggy Magnuson, 49, who now visits the Honey Brook Food Pantry twice as frequently as she did before the higher costs of meat, fruit, and vegetables shocked her.
“A lot of people who go to the pantry are embarrassed to ask for help,” said Magnuson, who lives in Kinzers, on the border of Chester and Lancaster Counties. Her son, his wife, and their two children live with her. Magnuson draws disability payments.
“But I say, helping people is what pantries are for. So many of us are in the same predicament.
“I’m glad pantries are here.”
I write about popular culture, the way we live, family, class, and poverty.