Long lines are back at US food banks as inflation soars

Long queues are back at food banks across the United States as inflation-burdened working Americans turn to aid to help feed their families.

With fuel prices on the rise along with grocery costs, many people are looking for charity food for the first time, and more are arriving on foot.

Inflation in the United States is at its highest level in 40 years, and gas prices have risen since April 2020, with the nationwide average cost briefly reaching $5 a gallon in June. The rapid rise in rents and the end of federal relief for COVID-19 have also taken a financial toll.

Food banks, beginning to see some relief as people return to work after a pandemic shutdown, are struggling to meet the latest needs even as federal programs to distribute less food, grocery store donations dwindling, and cash gifts come nowhere near that. far.

Tomasina John was among hundreds of families lined up in the many driveways that drove around the building on a recent day outside St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix. John said her family had never visited a food bank because her husband had easily supported her and their four children with construction work.

“But it’s really impossible to survive now without some help. Prices are too high,” said John, who traveled with a neighbor to share gas costs while they parked under the scorching desert sun.

A volunteer fills a car with boxes of food at a Saint Mary’s Food Bank on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Phoenix.

Jesus Pascual was also on the waiting list.

“It’s a real struggle,” said Pascual, the janitor, who estimated he spends several hundred dollars a month on groceries for him, his wife, and their five children, ages 11 to 19.

The same scene is repeated across the country, as food bank workers anticipate a harsh summer ahead of demand.

The increase in food prices comes after state governments ended COVID-19 disaster declarations that temporarily allowed benefits increases under SNAP, the federal food stamp program that covers nearly 40 million Americans.

“It doesn’t look like it’s going to get better overnight,” said Katie Fitzgerald, president of the National Food Bank Network, Feeding America. “Demand makes supply challenges complicated.”

Charitable food distribution has remained well above the amounts granted before the coronavirus pandemic, although demand waned somewhat late last year.

Feeding America officials say second-quarter data won’t be ready until August, but they’re hearing accounts from food banks across the country that demand is picking up.

The main distribution center of the Phoenix Food Bank distributed food parcels to 4,271 families during the third week of June, an increase of 78% from 2,396 families served during the same week last year, said St. Mary’s spokesperson, Jerry Brown.

Every day of the week, more than 900 families line up at the distribution center for an emergency government food box stuffed with goods like canned beans, peanut butter and rice, Brown said. St. adds

Distribution by the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Northern California has increased since the epidemic level hit a low at the beginning of this year, rising from 890 families served on the third Friday in January to 1,410 families on the third Friday in June, said marketing manager Michael. Search

Volunteers fill grocery carts with food to be distributed to vehicles at the Saint Mary's Food Bank on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Phoenix.

Volunteers fill grocery carts with food to be distributed to vehicles at the Saint Mary’s Food Bank on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Phoenix.

At the Houston Food Bank, the largest food bank in the US, where food distribution levels earlier in the pandemic peaked briefly at a staggering £1m a day, an average of £610,000 is now being distributed per day.

That’s up from about 500,000 pounds the day before the pandemic, spokeswoman Paula Murphy said.

Murphy said cash donations have not eased, but inflation ensures they won’t go away.

Food bank officials said the sudden increase in demand took them by surprise.

“Last year, we were expecting lower demand for 2022 because the economy was doing well,” said Michael Flood, chief executive of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. “This inflation problem just popped up.”

“A lot of these are people who work and have done well during the pandemic and may even have seen their wages go up. But they have also seen food prices go up beyond their budgets,” Flood said.

The Bank of Los Angeles provided about 30 million pounds of food during the first three months of this year, slightly less than the previous quarter, but still significantly more than the 22 million pounds granted during the first quarter of 2020.

Feeding America’s Fitzgerald is asking the US Department of Agriculture and Congress to find a way to recover hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of goods recently lost with the end of several temporary programs to provide food to those in need. USDA merchandise, which can generally account for up to 30% of the foodstuffs that banks disperse, account for more than 40% of the total food distributed in fiscal year 2021 by Feeding America.

“There is an urgent need for the public sector to buy more food now,” Fitzgerald said.

During the Trump administration, the USDA bought several billion dollars in pork, apples, dairy, potatoes and other products in a program that gave most of it to food banks. The “Food Purchase and Distribution Program” designed to help US farmers affected by tariffs and other practices of US trading partners has since ended. There was $1.2 billion authorized for fiscal year 2019 and another $1.4 billion authorized for fiscal year 2020.

Another temporary USDA Farmers for Families emergency relief program provided more than 155 million food boxes to families in need across the United States during the peak of the pandemic before the end of May 31, 2021.

A USDA spokesperson noted that the agency is using $400 million from the Build Back Better Initiative to enter into agreements with state, territory, and tribal governments to purchase food from underserved local, regional, and local producers to food banks, schools and other nutrition programs.

Manning, president and CEO of Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank in Louisiana, said there is enough food right now, but there may not be in the future. He said rising fuel costs make collecting and distributing food more expensive.

An Altfest spokesperson said the USDA’s coronavirus food assistance program, which has included farmers for families, has been a “blessing” for the Alameda County Community Food Bank, providing 5 billion pounds of goods over the course of one year.

“So the loss was a huge blow,” he said.

A volunteer fills a car with food boxes at a St. Mary's Food Bank as dozens of vehicles line up in the background Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Phoenix.

A volunteer fills a car with food boxes at a St. Mary’s Food Bank as dozens of vehicles line up in the background Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Phoenix.

Up to 10% of people foraging now are first-time timers, Altfest said, and an increasing number are showing up on foot rather than in cars to save fuel.

“The food they get from us helps them save already onerous budgets for other expenses like gas, rent, diapers and baby formula,” he said.

Meanwhile, the bank’s food purchases have jumped from a monthly average of $250,000 before the pandemic to $1.5 million now due to food prices. Altfest said higher gasoline prices forced the bank to increase its fuel budget by 66%.

Supply chain issues are also an issue, requiring the food bank to become more aggressive in buying.

“We used to reorder when our inventory was down to three weeks, and now we reorder up to six weeks,” Altfest said.

He said the food bank had already ordered and paid for a whole chicken, stuffing, cranberries and other items for the feast that he would distribute on Thanksgiving, the busiest time of the year.

At the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation in Montebello, east Los Angeles, workers say they see many families alongside seniors like Diane Martinez, who lined up one recent morning for a walk.

Some of the hundreds of mostly Spanish-speaking recipients had their cars parked nearby. They were carrying canvas bags, cardboard boxes, or push carts to pick up their food packages from the distribution site served by the Bank of Los Angeles.

“Food prices are very high and they are rising every day,” said Martinez, who is grateful for bags of black beans, ground beef and other groceries. help us.”

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