Los Angeles Times
The lines are growing at U.S. food banks
Working Americans burned by inflation are increasingly seeking assistance feeding their families.
PHOENIX — Long lines are back at food banks around the U.S., as working Americans overwhelmed by inflation seek assistance feeding their families.
With gas prices still high along with grocery costs, many people are seeking charitable food for the first time, and more are arriving on foot.
Inf lation in the U.S. is at a 40-year high, and gas prices surged from April 2020 until last month, with the average cost nationwide briefly hitting $5 a gallon in June. Rapidly rising rents and an end to federal COVID-19 relief programs have also taken a financial toll.
Food banks, which had started to see a reprieve as people returned to work after pandemic shutdowns, are struggling to meet the need as federal programs provide fewer items to distribute, donations from grocery stores wane and cash gifts don’t go nearly as far.
Tomasina John was among hundreds of people lined up in several lanes of cars that went around the block recently outside St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix.
John said she had never before visited a food bank because her husband had easily supported her and their four children with his construction work.
“But it’s really impossible to get by now without some help,” said John, who traveled with a neighbor to share gas costs, as they idled under the scorching desert sun. “The prices are way too high.”
Jesus Pascual was also in the queue.
“It’s a real struggle,” said Pascual, a janitor who estimated he spends several hundred dollars a month on groceries for himself, his wife and their five children, ages 11 to 19.
The scene is repeated across the nation, where food bank workers predict a rough summer keeping ahead of demand.
The surge in food prices comes after state governments ended COVID-19 disaster declarations that temporarily allowed increased benefits under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps that cover some 40 million Americans.
“It does not look like it’s going to get better overnight,” said Katie Fitzgerald, president and chief operating officer for the national food bank network Feeding America. “Demand is really making the supply challenges complex.”
Charitable food distribution has remained far above amounts given away before the pandemic, even though demand tapered off late last year. Feeding America officials say second-quarter data won’t be ready until August, but they are hearing anecdotally from food banks nationwide that demand is soaring.
The Phoenix food bank’s main distribution center handed out packages to 4,271 families during the third week in June, a 78% increase over the same week last year, said spokesman Jerry Brown.
More than 900 families line up at the distribution center every weekday for a government box stuffed with goods such as canned beans, peanut butter and rice, Brown said. St. Mary’s adds products purchased with cash donations, as well as food provided by local supermarkets — including bread, carrots and pork chops — for a package worth about $75.
Distribution by the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Northern California has ticked up since hitting a pandemic low at the beginning of the year, increasing from 890 households served on the third Friday in January to 1,410 on the third Friday in June, according to marketing director Michael Altfest.
At the largest food bank in the U.S., the Houston Food Bank, where distribution levels earlier in the pandemic briefly peaked at 1 million pounds a day, an average of 610,000 pounds is being given out daily. That’s up from 500,000 pounds a day before the pandemic, spokeswoman Paula Murphy said. She said cash donations have not eased, but inflation ensures that they don’t go as far.
Food bank executives said the sudden surge in demand caught them off guard.
“Last year, we had expected a decrease in demand for 2022, because the economy had been doing so well,” said Michael Flood, chief executive of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. “This issue with inflation came on pretty suddenly.
“A lot of these are people who are working and did OK during the pandemic and maybe even saw their wages go up,” Flood added. “But they have also seen food prices go up beyond their budgets.”
The L.A. bank gave away about 30 million pounds of food during the first three months of the year, slightly less than the previous quarter but far more than the 22 million pounds given away in the first quarter of 2020.
Feeding America’s Fitzgerald is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Congress to find a way to restore hundreds of millions of dollars worth of commodities lost with the end of several temporary programs to provide food to people in need. USDA commodities, which can represent as much as 30% of the food the banks disperse, accounted for more than 40% of all distributions in the 2021 fiscal year by the Feeding America network.
“There is a critical need for the public sector to purchase more food now,” Fitzgerald said.
Under the Trump administration, USDA bought several billions of dollars in pork, apples, dairy, potatoes and other products in a program that gave most of it to food banks. The Food Purchase & Distribution Program, designed to help farmers harmed by tariffs and other practices of U.S. trade partners, has since ended. There was $1.2 billion authorized for the 2019 fiscal year and $1.4 billion authorized for fiscal 2020.
Another temporary USDA program, Farmers to Families, provided more than 155 million food boxes across the country during the height of the pandemic before ending May 31, 2021.
A USDA spokesperson noted that the agency is using $400 million from President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative to establish agreements with states, territories and tribal governments to buy food from local, regional and underserved producers that can be given to food banks, schools and other programs.
For now, there’s enough food, but there might not be in the future, said Michael G. Manning, president and CEO of Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank in Louisiana. He said fuel costs make it far more expensive to collect and distribute food.
The USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which included Farmers to Families, was “a boon” for the Alameda County Community Food Bank, providing 5 billion pounds of commodities over a single year, Altfest said.
“So losing that was a big hit,” he said.
Altfest said as many as 10% of people seeking food are first-timers, and a growing number are showing up on foot to save gas.
“The food they get from us is helping them save already-stretched budgets for other expenses like gas, rent, diapers and baby formula,” he said.
Meanwhile, food purchases by the bank have jumped from a monthly average of $250,000 before the pandemic to as high as $1.5 million because of rising prices. Rocketing gasoline costs forced the bank to increase its fuel budget by 66%, Altfest said.
Supply chain issues are also a problem, requiring the bank to become more aggressive with procurement.
“We used to reorder when our inventory dropped to three weeks worth; now we reorder up to six weeks out,” Altfest said.
He said the food bank has already ordered and paid for whole chickens, stuffing, cranberries and other items it will distribute for Thanksgiving, the busiest time of the year.
At the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation in Montebello, east of Los Angeles, workers say they are seeing many families and elderly residents such as Diane Martinez, who lined up one recent morning on foot.
Some of the hundreds of mostly Spanish-speaking recipients had cars parked nearby. They carried cloth bags and cardboard boxes or shoved pushcarts to pick up their food packages from the distribution site.
“The prices of food are so high, and they’re going up higher every day,” said Martinez, who expressed gratitude for the bags of black beans, ground beef and other groceries. “I’m so glad that they’re able to help us.”