Food Banks, Pantries Hit By Inflation As More Families Seek Help
As high prices force more people to ask for help to put food on the table, food pantries across the state are feeling the strain as well.
A recent survey from Feeding America, a nonprofit network of 200 food banks, found that 155 food pantries reported a jump in the number of families facing food insecurity.
Lisa Davis is the director of the Helpful Harvest Food Bank in the small rural community of Speedway just north of Athens in Mercer County.
The foodbank was originally run by a local pastor who moved out of state, so Davis stepped into the role of director a year ago. She applied for her own 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to run the operation.
The only food bank in the area, each week long lines of people stand outside juggling for a spot to pick up a meal.
For Thanksgiving this year, the food bank doesn’t have enough money to buy turkeys or ham. Instead, Davis said they will provide all the needed sides for a Thanksgiving meal.
During the coronavirus pandemic there was an overabundance of food coming to the pantry through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Davis said that’s no longer the case.
“We do get some government allocated food but it’s not enough to keep up with our numbers so we’ve been purchasing food,” Davis said. “And some weeks our food purchases are $1300 for two weeks supply and our shelves are empty, sometimes before the end of the second week.”
Helpful Harvest purchases approximately 90 percent of its food from the state’s largest emergency food provider, Mountaineer Food Bank. Sam’s Club purchases and donations supplement supplies.
The only other food bank in the area is 30 minutes away. For those without transport it’s not an option.
“Some of these people walk two and three miles to get this food and they walk back with it,” Davis explained. “I have no idea how they carry it that far.”
The food bank has outgrown its current location and Davis is trying to raise funds to move into a bigger building next door. The Mercer County Commission approved a grant through the American Rescue Plan in August to buy their rented space and the adjacent building which will provide up to 5000 square feet of additional space. Davis hopes to be able to afford heating and install a cooling system to keep produce fresh.
Along with its mission of feeding the hungry, the small food bank serves as an outreach for the local population. Volunteers recently purchased a tent for an older homeless couple living under a carport. Others receive help with items like medical equipment, baby clothing, car seats, and diapers and formula. Davis said the closest diaper pantry is an hour away.
“If they can’t afford a $10 package of diapers they cannot afford the fuel to drive an hour each way to the diaper pantry,” she said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the food bank served 150 people a week. Over the next two years the numbers steadily rose. In recent months they’ve jumped to 450 people a week, a 260 percent increase. About 150 seniors qualify for monthly food boxes through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program.
“Once inflation hit we started receiving more participants,” Davis said. “Once the rise in the prices of groceries and fuel started, our numbers kept increasing by the week.”
Davis added that with food insecurity hitting more people it’s not just lower income families seeking help.
“The pandemic contributed to it, people weren’t as embarrassed to find other sources to help them,” Davis said. “We have lower income college students who utilize our services, and quite a few of them. We have seniors who can’t quite make it off of their fixed income. There seems to be less stigma around the food banks now.”
The Mountaineer Food Bank acts as a hub - distributing food through local smaller food pantries and soup kitchens and smaller food banks like Helpful Harvest.
It serves more than 460 pantries and soup kitchens throughout the state. The bank relies largely on volunteers and gets help from the USDA which purchases directly from farmers. In addition to pantries and soup kitchens food outreach programs cover shelters, senior and veterans programs, mobile food pantries and school and backpack programs.
Eric Peyatt is Mountaineer Food Bank’s vice president of operations. He says the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program provides most of their agency supply. Government programs like the federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) provide seniors with 5000 boxes of healthy food each month.
Peyatt said as funding fluctuates it’s normal to see cyclical ebbs and flows in USDA product supplies. Like Davis, he said during the coronavirus pandemic there was an overabundance of food through the government’s Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).
Mountaineer Food Bank also looks to other sources for its food supply.
“We can go to people like Big Daddy Foods, or Win Lings and buy products in bulk and then offer that up to agencies,” Peyatt said.
The food bank also gets donated products at locations across the state.
“We’ve been able to really work with a lot of farmers lately and get some perishable items, such as our produce,” he said. “We've been running a lot of our mobile pantries with produce and of course dairy items as well.”
The produce can come in large quantities - tractor trailer loads of 10-12 pallets of product. Peyatt said orchards in the eastern panhandle have been particularly generous with donations.
“Anytime we go there we can come back with a truck load of apples or peaches, or some of the other produce, they’ve been very generous to us on those donations,” he said.
Peyatt said he fully expects that sources of funding will come through as it has in previous years.
“It will pick back up,” Peyatt said. “I know there was an extreme amount of funding that was put in there by President Biden, I don’t have the number off the top of my head but we have experienced this before. It kind of goes in flows, it will definitely pick back up.”
On Tuesday Gov. Jim Justice awarded Mountaineer Food Bank and Facing Hunger Foodbank $500,000 each to support their mission of feeding the hungry.
The checks will go a long way to help sustain the food pantries and other feeding programs throughout the state, including smaller food banks like Helpful Harvest.