The Columbus Dispatch
Food pantries meet demand
Supply steady despite myriad issues
More people are coming through the doors of food pantries these days — at the same time those pantries are dealing with increased food costs and supply-chain disruptions.
“It has been a wild ride,” said Jennifer Fralic, director of the Lutheran Social Services pantries. “We have definitely noticed a couple of key items that we keep in stock and generally offer have been more difficult to come by, and when we are able to access them, we are paying more.”
Fralic reports an increase of about 30% in food costs this fiscal year, up from $304,274 last year to $400,000 this year.
At the same time, the LSS pantries have seen an increase of about 20% in the number of people visiting the pantries during the past few months (up to as many as 10,000 to 11,000 unduplicated people a month, she said).
The Mid-ohio Food Collective, which runs its own food pantry and also services 680 partner agencies (including pantries, soup kitchens and afterschool programs), is projecting a $1.4 million increase in costs this year over last year, said spokesman Malik Perkins.
He said the food bank was able to absorb that increase in its $37 million budget because of support from the Greater Columbus community, as well as city, state and federal government funds, such as the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan.
And Lisa Hamler-fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, said transportation costs have hurt her group at the same time that food donations from stores and individuals have dropped significantly.
“We need to raise more money than we’ve ever raised (to meet rising costs),” she said.
All three agencies reported that, generally speaking, they are meeting the need — shelves are not empty and people are still going home with the same amount of food, although perhaps with a few substitutions.
“We’re still able to provide food for families; we still have inventory,” Perkins said. “We’re not turning families away.”
The issues are myriad:
• The oft-discussed backlog of cargo coming from overseas hurts pantries, Hamler-fugitt said, because, “it’s very difficult to source domestically produced canned fruits.”
• The nation’s chronic labor shortage shows up on the bottom line for Hamlerfugitt in the form of much higher shipping costs. “I used to be able to get a semi-truck of peanut butter, which is a staple of ours, for $35,000,” she said. “Now, if I can find one, it’s $49,000 or more, plus surcharges.”
• Fewer donations, as grocery stores that once may have donated significant amounts of leftover product now have less to give as they struggle to keep their shelves stocked, and consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic eat at home more often.
“We definitely have seen lower poundage in those amounts of donations,” Fralic said.
Fralic and Hamler-fugitt both said the cost and availability of protein has been particularly troublesome.
Hamler-fugitt said the cost of peanut butter is up 39% from last year, fresh chicken is up 63% and eggs are up 70%.
Fralic said the LSS pantries have had to cut back slightly on the amount of meat they give out.
“We have had to find ... substitutions for different things,” she said. “But the great news is we have still been able to provide the same amount of food that we have traditionally provided.”
Hamler-fugitt said she felt the pandemic exposed systemic problems such as a “brittle” supply chain and a consolidation among meat processors nationwide.
“We’re really being challenged here,” she said. “I hope people recognize that we can’t take for granted where our food comes from. We need a robust and wholesome supply of locally produced and processed foods, because shipping product from Florida or Texas or Arizona or California — if you can even get a semi tractor-trailer — adds to the cost.”
For now, though, the pantries are absorbing the increased costs and maintaining the necessary supplies.
“Our message to the community that is seeing these supply-chain issues is, `We have food and we want you to come to us for food,’” Perkins said. “Sometimes, with the stigma associated with food insecurity, people think, `I’m not as much in need, and if I go (to the pantry),
I’m taking food away from somebody else who needs it more.’
“That’s not the case,” he said. “We have plenty of food, so come to us.” email@example.com @kgdispatch