Saturday, May 21, 2022

Impacts of inflation on the community and food banks

by Cinnamon Davis, Gretchen Boyer, Jamie Quinn and Sophie Albert
| May 8, 2022 12:00 AM

While the current rate of inflation is affecting all of us, it once again hits our low-income neighbors the hardest. As many pandemic assistance programs are ending at the same time as food and gas prices are rising, a growing number of community members rely on food assistance programs once again. In recent months, local food access nonprofits have seen another surge in need.

One customer at North Valley Food Bank, T., started struggling in late December. She found herself in a dire situation and had to spend all her savings on a family emergency. While they previously made it on a tight budget and only had to come to the food bank occasionally, T. said that “the last few months have been especially tough. We fully depend on the food we get from the food bank now. That’s the only way we can still pay rent and keep gas in our tank.”

At the NW Montana Veterans Food Pantry, one customer shared that he regularly drove 65 miles to get his monthly food box. With the rise of gas prices, he is unable to do this in the future and the only way to feed his family will no longer be accessible to him.

In the first quarter of 2022, all local food banks have seen a steady increase in customers. At the NW Montana Veterans Food Pantry, an average of 26 new veterans have signed their families up for assistance every month, which doubled the total number of people served.

North Valley Food Bank has seen a total of 215 new households, an increase of 69% from the previous year, over the three-month time period and served more than 100 households in a single day – the highest number ever – in the free grocery store a few weeks ago. Flathead Food Bank had a 33% increase in visits in March from the previous two months and expects to serve close to 3,000 households a month with the increase in food insecurity.

Similarly, Land to Hand Montana witnessed a 75%-100% increase in need for services between pre-pandemic times and recent weeks. More and more organizations are asking for their weekend food banks and just last week, their Thursday distribution doubled.

For the past two years, pandemic related food programs such as pandemic EBT (P-EBT), Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) waivers and School Meal Flexibilities have reduced the barriers to feeding hungry kids in Montana. At the same time, these programs have allowed food access nonprofits to meet increased demand for our services by sharing the need through both public and private funding. Congress is due to vote on the continuation of these programs in the coming weeks and if they are not renewed, we will see an additional increase in need.

P-EBT affected 97,500 Montana children and bridged that hunger gap for many Montana families. SFSP flexibilities were only temporary and under typical program rules, kids are required to eat Summer Food Service Program meals on site. This requirement is a burden for families and creates barriers to those who may want to grab meals on the go, or have parents pick up meals to take home to their kids. Finally, School Meal Flexibilities allowed schools to provide school breakfast and lunch to all students without the burden of excessive paperwork and student lunch debt that often became the school districts responsibility.

Since the pandemic, some Montana communities have experienced the highest increase in housing prices since the Great Depression. This increase has exacerbated an already tight budget as benefits decrease in every way. What does this mean for feeding Montana families? While some of us may have seen increased pay, it is not keeping pace with housing costs and inflation. As many pandemics related safety nets end, we are not better off – on the contrary, many families struggle more than previously.

While the average percentage of cost for rent, food, and gas accounts for 40% of the budget of Americans, that number has been closer to 60% for food bank customers, based on a recent Washington Post article.

Inflation does not only affect individual community members but also impacts our organizational budgets directly. In addition to the growing demand for assistance, we see our operational costs going up. Food prices are skyrocketing, fuel costs are at an all-time high and our utility costs are soaring. While all our local food banks rely heavily on donated food, we also have to purchase 25% to 33% of our food inventory through the Montana Food Bank Network, grocery stores, local farmers and other distributors. Average food prices have increased by 40% since before the pandemic, with macaroni and cheese seeing a record increase of 93%. A gallon of milk went up from $2.78 to $3.38.

We are grateful to our giving community that invests financially in us to purchase food for those we serve allowing us to buy what is needed based on our operations and to buy in bulk from the Montana Food Bank Network to keep our prices down. Even with a 40% increase in overall food purchasing, on average, our buying power is still 70% cheaper compared to what people can purchase at the grocery store. Many people believe that as food banks we receive federal and state funding. We don’t. Similarly, the NW Montana Veterans Food Pantry doesn’t receive funding from the VA. While 25% of Land to Hand’s funding in 2021 came from the Montana Office of Public Instruction, that funding is no longer available. We all solely rely on funds provided by our communities.

All of us, the local food security organizations, are interconnected by our missions and our passion. During the past two years, we jointly planned how to get through Covid, made contingency plans on how to address staffing shortages that would shutter our doors for days or how to respond to grocery rescue decreases. Now, we are once again strategizing on how to feed a growing number of people for an extended period.

While all of us are independently-run food banks, we are in constant communication and share food and resources. Come August, for example, when the cherries are abundant, a donation to Bigfork Food Bank quickly winds up being couriered between agencies to share the abundance and to ensure no food goes to waste. We are doing everything we can to continuously provide healthy food to our community members in need. But we depend on the support of all of you, our communities, to fully address food insecurity in Flathead County and beyond. Hunger in one community impacts the health of all of us. Let’s continue to work together to make sure all our neighbors have access to the food they need.

Cinnamon Davis, NW Montana Veterans Food Pantry; Gretchen Boyer, Land to Hand Montana; Jamie Quinn, Flathead Food Bank; Sophie Albert, North Valley Food Bank.