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Soaring prices mean food banks face growing need, less food

paper bag with essential supplies given to elderly person at food bank
jovo/aerogondo - stock.adobe.com
Food banks say they're seeing an increasing rise in demand lately, even as buying, storing and transporting enough food to meet the need is getting harder.

It was March when Stacy Averill noticed the lines were getting longer at Gleaners Community Food Bank distribution sites across Southeast Michigan.

“Right now, we are seeing multigenerational families who are all living together to save on costs, who are coming to our distributions in order to help that household get by,” says Averill, Gleaners’ vice president of community giving and public relations. “We’re also seeing more people carpool…and pick up food for their neighbors, so that their neighbors don’t have to spend the money on gas to get to the distribution sites.”

Food insecurity soared during the first year of the pandemic, affecting an estimated 2 million people in the state. Afterhitting record levels, the share of people leaning on food banks started to drop slightly last year. But now state and local food bank organizations say they’re seeing another steady rise in demand “beyond the normal ebbs and flows,” Averill says.

In a year where grocery prices soared 10% (the largest one-year increase in 40 years, according to the Consumer Price Index), Michiganders are now paying a record $64 on average for a 15 gallon tank of gas, on top of higher housing, rent, energy, and car prices. It’s especially hard on families and seniors living on fixed incomes, Averill says, and demand is up at mobile food sites where people can drive through, as well as brick and mortar food pantries.

“Each month over the last five months, we've seen the number of people coming in search of emergency food, climb,” says Phil Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan.

But at the same time, food banks are struggling to keep their shelves stocked, Knight says. That’s partly thanks to those same rising food costs.

“There's definitely been challenges in the fact that food prices are up…for Gleaners as well,” Averill says. “And so we are facing higher prices in some of our shelf-stable commodities, and produce and milk and other items that we purchase.”

At the same time, less food is coming in from the USDA, she says. “That's typically a large source of donated food to Gleaners, and that has decreased substantially from what we saw during the pandemic.” At one point during the pandemic, the USDA was providing 30% of what food banks were distributing, Knight says. “[Now] we are only receiving 8% of the food from the USDA that we are distributing.”

The USDA has an Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to help supplement the food that food banks receive. When COVID hit, that program got an influx of one-time, emergency funds during the first couple years of the pandemic that have since expired, a USDA spokesperson says via email. “All one-time funds were in addition to the annual TEFAP entitlement allotment a state receives which is based on a state’s poverty and unemployment data,” the spokesperson says. “The TEFAP entitlement formula has not changed; what has changed is the ending of one time appropriations.”

On top of that, supply chain problems with everything from aluminum to cardboard are also making it hard to transport and store food where food banks need it, Knight says.

“That's the bottom line: we just do not have enough food to meet the need,” he says. “...And so this looks like a perfect storm for us, in that we're getting less food [but] we're having more people [who need help.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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