According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, food inflation in the United States hit 10.9% in July 2022, the highest since May 1979. Food-at-home prices — meaning the cost of food at the grocery store — increased by 13.1%.
Stenson spoke about the impact of the current economic climate and inflation, noting that some corporate donations of food products have dried up, since it is more expedient for them to sell their products for a good price.
In addition, many of their individual donors — on which many food pantries rely — are not giving or are giving less, “since everyone is dealing with inflation,” she said.
Dave Barringer, national CEO of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, told CNA that during the pandemic “we did not see an increase in food needs as much as a need to get food to people in different, safer, ways,” such as with contactless methods of food distribution. SVDP mobilizes hundreds of thousands of volunteers across the country, arranged into local groups called conferences, to provide various kinds of aid to the poor through personal encounters.
Now, Barringer says, the needs they see among the people they serve are primarily financial.
“They tell us that wages are up, but not enough to meet the increased costs of energy, especially gasoline and home energy,” Barringer explained. “Their food costs are skyrocketing, so food pantry essentials stretch what they can afford on their own … They come to us first, and then supplement at the grocery store.”
Barringer said they have also seen a trend toward family members moving in with each other in larger numbers to save money on rent, more people working multiple jobs, and many undocumented immigrant families who are unable to receive social assistance because of their legal status.
Barringer recognized the importance of food pantries, but emphasized that they are “only band-aids for families in need.”
“We can’t as Catholics give enough food (or school backpacks or anything else) away to solve this economic problem, we can only ease the pain,” he said. “The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is focusing on systemic change solutions such as financial literacy, workforce development, re-entry programs and alternatives to predatory lending to help our neighbors with longer-term solutions to avoid or escape poverty.”
“Anxiety and need” increasing everywhere
Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank in south Louisiana, told CNA that ever since the start of the pandemic, the “level of anxiety and need” among the people they serve has not abated.
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The food bank already serves about 200,000 people in south Louisiana, and Jayroe said the number of people seeking their services has increased by 5% every month since inflation started rising.
One problem Second Harvest faces is that much of the federal money allocated during the pandemic has dried up, leaving the food bank to foot more of the bill than it did during the initial period of high demand brought on by the COVID crisis.
The St. Augustine Wellston Center, in St. Louis, distributes food to families monthly and buys much of its food using donated funds rather than relying on donated items. Calabro, the director, said their monthly grocery bill has increased in recent months from about $1,200 on average to nearly $3,000.
Calabro said they are seeing an increase not only in the numbers of families that are coming to them for assistance but also an increase in the number of times families have had to return to them to seek help.
The three food pantries operated by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston “have seen a significant increase by families who are experiencing food insecurity,” a spokesperson told CNA.
“People are not only coming in for food, but they are also requesting clothing, school supplies, cleaning products, rental, and utility assistance,” she said. “Many are even seeking employment guidance and education and training assistance.”