PHOENIX — Long lines are back at food banks across the United States as American workers overwhelmed by inflation turn to donations to help feed their families.
With gas prices and grocery costs soaring, many people are seeking charity food for the first time, and others are arriving on foot.
US inflation is at a 40-year high and gasoline prices have been rising since April 2020, with the national average cost briefly hitting $5 a gallon in June. Rapidly rising rents and the end of federal COVID-19 relief have also had a financial impact.
Food banks, which had begun to see some relief as people returned to work after pandemic shutdowns, are struggling to meet the latest needs, even as federal programs provide less food to distribute, grocery store donations dwindle and cash donations don’t go that far.
Tomasina John was among hundreds of families lined up in multiple lanes of cars that circled the block one recent day in front of St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix. John said her family had never visited a food bank before because her husband readily supported her and their four children in their construction work.
“But it’s really impossible to get by now without help,” said John, who traveled with a neighbor to split gas costs as they idled in the scorching desert sun. “The prices are way too high.”
Jesus Pascual was also in the queue.
“It’s a real struggle,” said Pascual, a janitor who estimates he spends several hundred dollars a month on groceries for himself, his wife and their five children, ages 11 to 19.
The same scene is repeated across the country, where food bank workers are predicting a difficult summer by anticipating demand.
The spike in food prices comes after state governments ended COVID-19 disaster declarations that temporarily allowed increased benefits under SNAP, the federal food stamp program covering some 40 million people. Americans.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to get better overnight,” said Katie Fitzgerald, president and chief operating officer of national food bank network Feeding America. “Demand really makes supply challenges complex.”
Charitable food distribution remained well above the amounts distributed before the coronavirus pandemic, although demand fell somewhat at the end of last year.
Feeding America officials say second-quarter data won’t be ready until August, but they’re hearing anecdotally from food banks nationwide that demand is skyrocketing.
The Phoenix Food Bank’s main distribution center distributed food parcels to 4,271 families in the third week of June, a 78% increase from the 2,396 families served in the same week last week. last year, St. Mary’s spokesman Jerry Brown said.
More than 900 families line up at the distribution center every weekday for a government emergency food box filled with items such as canned beans, peanut butter and rice, Brown said. St. Mary’s is adding products purchased with cash donations, as well as foods provided by local supermarkets like bread, carrots and pork chops for a combined package worth about $75.
Distribution by the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Northern California has increased since hitting a pandemic low earlier this year, from 890 households served on the third Friday in January to 1,410 households on third Friday in June, said the director of marketing. Michel Altfest.
At the Houston Food Bank, the largest food bank in the United States where food distribution levels at the start of the pandemic briefly peaked at 1 million pounds a day, an average of 610,000 pounds is now being distributed daily.
That’s about 500,000 pounds a day before the pandemic, spokeswoman Paula Murphy said.
Murphy said cash donations haven’t gone down, but inflation ensures they don’t go as far.
Food bank leaders said the sudden surge in demand caught them off guard.
“Last year, we expected a drop in demand for 2022 because the economy was doing so well,” said Michael Flood, CEO of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. “This inflation problem came on quite suddenly.”
“A lot of them are working people and have done well during the pandemic and may have even seen their salaries go up,” Flood said. “But they have also seen food prices rise beyond their budgets.”
The Los Angeles bank distributed about 30 million pounds of food in the first three months of this year, slightly less than the previous quarter but still well above the 22 million pounds distributed in the first quarter of 2020.
Fitzgerald of Feeding America calls on the USDA and Congress to find a way to restore hundreds of millions of dollars in recently lost produce with the end of several temporary programs aimed at providing food to those in need. USDA commodities, which can typically account for up to 30% of food distributed by banks, accounted for more than 40% of all food distributed in fiscal year 2021 by the Feeding America Network.
“There is a critical need for the public sector to buy more food now,” Fitzgerald said.
Under the Trump administration, the USDA bought billions of dollars worth of pork, apples, dairy, potatoes and other products under a program that gave most of it to banks food. The “food purchase and distribution program” designed to help US farmers harmed by tariffs and other practices of US trading partners has since ended. There was $1.2 billion authorized for fiscal year 2019 and an additional $1.4 billion authorized for fiscal year 2020.
Another temporary USDA Farmers to Families program that provided emergency relief provided more than 155 million boxes of food to families in need across the United States at the height of the pandemic before end on May 31, 2021.
For now, there is enough food, but there may not be any in the future, said Michael G. Manning, president and CEO of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank in Louisiana. . He said high fuel costs also made collecting and distributing food much more expensive.
USDA’s coronavirus food assistance program, which included Farmers to Families, has been “a boon” to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, providing 5 billion pounds of produce in a single year, a said the Altfest spokesperson.
“So losing that was a big success,” he said.
Altfest said up to 10% of people looking for food are beginners, and a growing number are showing up on foot rather than driving to save gas.
“The food they get from us helps them save already stretched budgets for other expenses like gas, rent, diapers and formula,” he said.
Meanwhile, food purchases by the bank have fallen from a monthly average of $250,000 before the pandemic to $1.5 million today due to food prices. Soaring gasoline prices forced the bank to increase its fuel budget by 66%, Altfest said.
Supply chain issues are also an issue, forcing the food bank to become more aggressive in sourcing.
“We used to reorder when our inventory was down to three weeks, now we’re reordering up to six weeks,” Altfest said.
He said the food bank has already ordered and paid for whole chickens, stuffing, cranberries and other festive items that it will distribute for Thanksgiving, the busiest time of year.
At the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation in Montebello, east of Los Angeles, workers say they see many families as well as seniors like Diane Martinez, who walked in line one recent morning.
Some of the hundreds of mostly Spanish-speaking recipients had cars parked nearby. They carried cloth bags, cardboard boxes or pushed carts to collect their food parcels at the distribution site served by the bank in Los Angeles.
“Food prices are so high and they’re going up every day,” said Martinez, who expressed gratitude for bags of black beans, ground beef and other groceries. “I’m so glad they can help us.”
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Post expires at 5:01pm on Thursday July 21st, 2022