Families and food banks seek creative ways to counter the bite of inflation

People shop at a supermarket in New York on June 10, 2022, as the country faces rising food and other consumer prices due to inflation. (CNS Photo/Andrew Kelly, Reuters)

by Dennis Sadowski

WASHINGTON (CNS) — With high inflation driving food prices higher, Elma Lou Ortiz doesn’t think it’s surprising that more people are showing up at the food pantry run by Catholic Charities of Corpus Christi in Texas.

“Our customers, they are overwhelmed to see how much everything has increased. Even people who get food stamps come into our pantry,” said Ortiz, director of the agency’s Crisis Support and Self-Reliance Services department.

The proof is in the numbers.

In 2021, Ortiz said about 250 families visit the agency’s food pantry each month, choosing the kind of fresh fruits and vegetables, staples, meats and dairy products they need. This year, she has 800 families a month who come to the food pantry, which is open Monday through Thursday each week.

“We used to see 30 to 40 families a day and now we see 100 families a day,” she told Catholic News Service Aug. 3.

A network of five smaller food pantries in outlying areas of the Diocese of Corpus Christi are also seeing more customers this year, Ortiz said.

She explained how she is spending extra funds — up to $600 a week — to meet the increased demand. And for every delivery from the regional food bank about a mile away, a $25 delivery fee is now added.

“We’re all struggling a bit here,” Ortiz said.

A woman receives food during a “Live it Up: Get Healthy, Live Well” event on July 7, 2022, in the parking lot of St. Michael’s Church in Brooklyn, NY (CNS Photo/courtesy Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens)

Whether in South Texas or elsewhere, those providing food to those in need say they are seeing more low-income working families and elderly people reaching out for help. They hear from people who have to choose carefully how to spend their limited financial resources.

Food pantries and meal programs provide a bridge for individuals and families who also face higher costs for housing, utilities and vehicle fuel.

For the 12 months ending in June, consumer prices rose 9.1%, the most since 1981, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The data shows that overall food prices rose 10.4%, with food purchased at home – what is purchased at grocery stores – rising 12.2%. Out-of-home food is up 7.7%.

Utilities also rose during the period, with electricity up 13.7% and natural gas up 38.4%.

Fuels, including all types of gasoline, posted the largest increase in consumer costs, rising 60.2% over the past year. National gasoline prices in July fell 34 cents from their all-time high in June at $4.66 a gallon, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration. The cost of gas has remained above $4 a gallon since March, the longest stretch in US history.

A mother and son look at food at the Choice Pantry run by Catholic Charities of Corpus Christi in Texas in this undated photo. Rapidly rising food and housing prices have led more and more people to turn to food pantries to help stretch their grocery budget. (CNS Photo/courtesy Catholic Charities of Corpus Christi)

Such inflation worries Anthony Granado, vice president of government relations at Catholic Charities USA. He works with members of Congress and their staffs to ensure that adequate funding for social services, particularly food and nutrition programs, is included in the appropriation bills for fiscal year 2023 currently in process. course of debate.

“We expect food to continue to increase. Now is not the time to cut programs that serve low-income workers and people struggling with high gas prices and high food prices,” he said. “At the end of the day, the people with the least money are going to feel the brunt of it.”

The experience of the distribution network operated by Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens in New York illustrates his concern about the impact of inflation on families and food banks.

“Normally what we would spend in a month, we now spend in two weeks on food to support our pantries,” said Debbie Hampson, senior director of community outreach services.

The operation saw a 1000% increase in customers in spring and summer 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic exploded. Customer numbers dipped in 2021, but not to pre-pandemic levels, then started to rise again this year alongside rapidly rising food prices, Hampson said.

Fellow pantry supervisor Jennifer Smith said many people seeking help are employed but need a helping hand to stretch their limited finances.

“They use our pantries as just an extra resource,” she said. “We are seeing an increase in the number of working families. These are people who started coming at the start of the pandemic and they stopped coming once they were rehired. Now that they know us, they come back because they need an extra.

A customer selects fresh green vegetables at the Choice Pantry operated by Catholic Charities of Corpus Christi in Texas in this undated photo. Rapidly rising food and housing prices have led more and more people to turn to food pantries to help stretch their grocery budget. (CNS Photo/courtesy Catholic Charities of Corpus Christi)

Both would like to see stronger support for food programs, especially at a time when inflation is at its highest rate in four decades.

More families are also visiting Blanchet House in the Old Town neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. Rather than handing out food, Maison Blanchet (pronounced blan-shay) provides meals to people, especially those who are homeless or live in one-room apartments.

The charity was founded in the years following World War II by students at Holy Cross University in Portland inspired by the Catholic labor movement. He sees families driving from further afield for meals, said Scott Kerman, executive director.

“We are seeing families with young people at an unprecedented rate before the pandemic. There are not many families in this neighborhood,” he said.

Housing costs in Portland have “gone crazy,” Kerman said, leading people to seek out services that can help with rising expenses. “It meets their needs.”

Beyond inflation, supply chain blockages and labor shortages are affecting the capacity of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, which represents the state’s 12 Feeding America food banks and 3,700 hunger relief agencies, including Catholic-led programs.

The overall impact pushed food costs up 42 cents a pound to $1.04 a pound, executive director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt said. She called on the Ohio legislature to provide additional funding for food bank services as low-income and working-class people are “further economically brutalized.”

“Families who come to us cite their income,” Hamler-Fugitt told CNS. “For those who are working, even though they have seen a modest increase in their salaries, this has been completely swallowed up by rising housing and food costs.”

Older people are also feeling the impact of inflation. Hamler-Fugitt said he’s heard from colleagues across the state that seniors are turning to food banks as they face rising energy costs and, for those who own their own homes, to higher property taxes.

“I hear a lot of older people say, ‘I eat one meal a day,'” she said. “There is a lot of fear. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much anxiety and fear, the fear that “I’m going to end up homeless”. I’m going to end up destitute.'”

Despite the immense challenges, suppliers like Hampson in New York do not plan to cut food purchases at a time of growing needs in the face of high inflation. And their customers know it.

“That’s what people say to us at the pantry: ‘Thank you for being here. It’s good to have some extra help,” she said.

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