The first time Kelly Wilcox drove her 2017 Dodge Grand Caravan to the pantry near her home in Payson, Utah, she noticed one thing that immediately surprised her: Newer models of Toyota and Honda sedans and minivans. “I saw a bunch of other people with cars like mine, who had kids in the cars,” she said.
The mother of four young children didn’t know what to expect when she made that initial trip to the local Tabitha’s Way food pantry this spring. She knew that she needed help. Her husband had lost his job. She soon found herself a new job as an account manager, but with inflation it hasn’t been enough. “We still can’t meet the bills,” said Mrs. Wilcox, 35. To keep her children fed this summer, she has been visiting the pantry regularly and said that barring a change, such as a drop in food prices or a raise for her husband, it will be necessary for the foreseeable future.
The Tabitha’s Way location in Spanish Fork, Utah, a city of about 44,000 on the outskirts of Provo, used to serve about 130 families each week, offering basics like fresh produce and baby formula. This year, serving people like Mrs. Wilcox and her family whose paychecks don’t go far enough, that number has surpassed 200.
The rise in food insecurity is not about a sudden wave of unemployment as it was when the economy ground to a halt in 2020 in the first wave of the pandemic. It’s about inflation: higher prices for housing, gas, and especially food. According to the latest report on consumer prices, the cost of food increased 10.4 percent from a year earlier, the largest increase in 12 months since 1981.
Food banks are trying to meet these needs while coping with declining donations and, in some cases, increased awareness among people in need of help that food banks are an option.
Data from the Census Bureau showed that last month, 25 million adults had sometimes not eaten enough in the previous seven days. That was the highest number since just before Christmas 2020, when the pandemic continued to take a heavy economic toll and the unemployment rate was nearly double what it is today.
A survey by the Urban Institute found that food insecurity, after falling sharply in 2021, rose to about the same level in June and July that it reached in March and April 2020: about one in five adults reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous 30 years. days. Among working adults, 17.3% said they had experienced food insecurity, compared to 16.3% in 2020. (The most recent survey had 9,494 respondents and a margin of error of 1.2 percentage points.)
Locally, those trends are reflected in what Wendy Osborne, director of Tabitha’s Way, sees in Utah. “There are more people who have jobs, are working, they just don’t make enough,” she said.
Ms. Osborne said that most of the families who collected food from Tabitha’s Way had one or more jobs. “I repeatedly hear: ‘I’ve never had to use a food pantry. I’m the one who has helped people, not the one who needed help,’” she said.
Lines of thousands of cars in front of food banks and food pantries were among the iconic images of the first phase of the pandemic, when the economy contracted after lockdowns across the country. The federal government helped with additional funds and additional food. Individual donors gave money.
“There was a great charitable response at the beginning. There was also a very strong government response,” said Elaine Waxman, an expert on food insecurity and federal nutrition programs at the Urban Institute in Washington. But the end of rising unemployment, stimulus checks and monthly child tax credit payments, combined with inflation, means that the problems are starting to surface again. This time, donations are down just as the need is rising again.
What is inflation? Inflation is a loss of purchasing power over time, which means your dollar won’t go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is usually expressed as the annual change in the prices of everyday goods and services, such as food, furniture, clothing, transportation, and toys.
“We are good in a crisis. We rise to the occasion,” said Ms. Waxman. “But we don’t know what to do if the crisis persists.”
Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, which helps supply smaller frontline pantries where customers pick up food, said 65 percent of member organizations surveyed had reported an increase from May to June in the number of people served. Only 5 percent reported a decrease.
At the same time, cash donations, a boon at the start of the pandemic, have shrunk. In the first quarter of the year, national office revenue fell nearly a third from a year earlier, from $151 million to $107 million.
“You’re in the middle of a battle and people are leaving the field,” Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive officer of Feeding America, said in an interview. On visits to food banks, she said, “I go into freezers that don’t have a lot of food.”
The Feeding America network includes 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs. During the four months for which data is most recently available, February through May, 73 percent of Feeding America food banks surveyed said food donations had decreased, 94 percent said the cost of food purchases had increased and 89 percent said they were paying more for transportation to purchase or deliver food.
During the first three quarters of fiscal 2022, Feeding America said, it received 1.14 billion pounds of food from federal commodity programs, compared to 2.46 billion pounds a year earlier.
The multiple pressures on emergency food systems are evident in Tabitha’s Way. In the first half of 2022, food donations fell by nearly two-thirds compared to the same period last year. Food donations from supermarkets and restaurants were less than a quarter of what they were the year before. Cash donations fell to less than $700,000 from nearly $1.1 million.
Like consumers, the pantry spends more on the food it buys. Fuel to pick up donated food is costing more, though slightly below recent highs. And with unemployment at 2 percent in Utah, labor costs for drivers and skilled personnel have risen as well. Ms. Osborne said her staff’s average salary was $20 or more an hour, up from $16 the year before. “We don’t want our employees to be food insecure too,” she said.
“There was a lot of attention nationally during covid, rightfully so, but sadly things haven’t changed and sadly they are getting worse at the moment, especially with all the inflation,” Ms Osborne said.
Those long lines at food banks at the start of the pandemic, and the cataclysm for everyone at once, may also have done something to shake off some of the lingering stigma around emergency food systems.
“I thought it would be a bunch of off-brand foods or prepared foods,” said Antazha Boysaw, 24, a certified nursing assistant at a retirement home in the Hartford, Conn., area. Instead, the mother of two young children found her local food pantries offering squash, shrimp, and brown rice.
“You can eat fancy meals from the food pantry,” Ms. Boysaw said. “It’s not like I’m going to get the bare minimum of the leftover expired stuff.”
She started going to a food pantry in 2021 after learning her income was too high to qualify for SNAP benefits, sometimes called food stamps, but she still needed help feeding her children.
“I had my hat on, a big sweater, I didn’t want anyone to see me,” she said of the first time she went to a food pantry.
Now, as inflation continues to drive up prices, she has come to rely on food assistance for healthy meals, and is encouraging others in need to seek help as well.
Ms. Boysaw began posting TikTok videos about her positive experience. She would tell a friend, “Don’t be afraid, girl, get your food! Make sure you go with your ID.”
Other first-time pantry goers made it through the height of the pandemic shutdowns without needing this kind of assistance, but find it harder to navigate inflation. Iliana Lebron-Cruz, 44, a health coach who also works for a dog retreat, lives an hour west of Seattle with her husband, a supervisor at Costco, and her three children. They have a combined family income of about $120,000. “We more or less live paycheck to paycheck,” she said.
Recently, Ms. Lebron-Cruz found herself searching for free food options in her area after unexpectedly spending hundreds of dollars on a trip to Oregon following a family emergency.
When he got home from that trip, he looked at his empty fridge. “I get paid on Thursday. It’s Tuesday. I don’t have it,” she said that she had noticed. She called a food pantry.
“If something comes up with the way inflation is, it’s like a double whammy,” he said. “Six months ago, if the same thing had happened, it wouldn’t have been so bad,” he said.
As Ms. Lebron-Cruz said in a TikTok video that has been viewed more than 390,000 times: “Let’s break the stigma, no need to be ashamed folks!” She said that she had received some negative responses to the video, but that she had also heard from mothers who needed it.
“I’m like, absolutely, go feed your babies,” she said.