Hunger cliff: Food pantries worry about continued inflation, recession

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah Food Bank president and CEO Ginette Bott said she knew many families faced at least 12 to 18 months of struggling to put food on the table.

As predicted, demand at food pantries surged during the pandemic, but now it doesn’t show any signs of slowing thanks to the ever-increasing prices of food, housing and gas.

“The pandemic really leveled the playing field, meaning that everybody had challenges throughout,” Bott said. “Then all of a sudden inflation popped up. And so the same families that were struggling because of COVID are still struggling now, hampered by inflation. It’s impacting all of us … but if you’re a family who has been impacted by all of that from COVID and you’re still trying to catch up, inflation has been horrible.”

Bott said the Utah Food Bank saw nearly three times the usual amount of demand at the busiest time during the pandemic, and even now, it’s more than twice as busy as normal. At the same time demand for food from pantries is up, frequent supply chain snafus have made certain items — such as baby formula — harder for consumers to find.

“If the stores don’t have those kinds of items, that isn’t something that I can go out and find either. Just because we’re a food bank doesn’t mean we can get the things the store doesn’t have,” Bott said, adding that the Utah Food Bank is carefully monitoring shortages to be prepared for what might come next. “Baby food and formula are things that we’re very cautious with and very careful with because of expiration dates.”

Bill Tibbits, deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, a food pantry in Salt Lake City, said the organization tries to maintain as much stock as it can, because there’s nowhere else for people to turn.

“Usually, we are the end of the line,” he said. “When people come to us, they have already used other options. … If we don’t have something, there’s not a great place to refer people for things like formula.”

The Utah Food Bank — which supplies over 200 food pantries statewide — gets the majority of its food from large commercial donors or the US Department of Agriculture. According to Bott, they have been spared the worst of the supply crisis — especially when it comes to necessities — thanks to Utah’s relatively strong supply chain.

Lately, the food bank has faced greater hurdles when it comes to finding the labor to sort and deliver food to the pantries, as well as keeping up with transportation costs.

“If this doesn’t turn in time, and soon, it’s going to be very difficult for us to keep up the level of service. We may have the product, but I’m not going to have the staff and I’m not going to have the fuel to keep these trucks on the road,” Bott said.

An absolute dilemma

Tibbits, who has worked for Crossroads for two decades, said he has never seen demand like this. Previous surges, he said, were generally driven by high unemployment rates, like in the years following the 2008 recession. Now, in spite of low unemployment, more Utahns are turning into pantries because their wages can’t keep up with the price of goods.

“For the families we serve, the price of food is bad, but part of why it’s so bad is that rent is going up twice as fast as food,” he said. “(People) are just being stretched in ways that they couldn’t have planned for it. … Normally when we have a 2% unemployment rate, the food pantry slows down, because people are able to get better paying jobs, but the cost of living — particularly for renting — is going up faster than wages. It’s scary.”

“We haven’t seen an increase this big when the unemployment rate was this low. Ever,” he continued.

Tibbits is more concerned by what is yet to come, given that some of the few remaining COVID-19 assistance programs — including an expanded food stamps program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — may roll back benefits later this year.

When that happens, he said, “food pantries all over the country are expecting to see a major increase.”

“We’re seeing an increase now, but when that happens, people at the national level are talking about this being a hunger cliff,” Tibbits said. “That’s what we’re worried about. Right now, we’re seeing an increase, but we’re generally able to keep up with it. If things get worse, it’s going to be pretty hard to keep enough food on the shelves.”

The country could be in even worse shape if a true recession hits, he said, as even more Utahns could face food insecurity.

“I’m not used to seeing the economy so impacted,” Tibbits said. “First the pandemic, and now a war in Europe. It’s hard to know what to predict. I’d rather not speculate, I don’t want to give the universe any bad ideas.”

‘It’s not going to go away soon’

They understand that many families who could normally afford excess are now struggling to meet basic needs, Bott and Tibbitts although Utahns to help in any way they can.

“The one thing that I think people always need to remember is in addition to food and money, the pantries in your neighborhood also need your time,” Bott said. “Sometimes the volunteer help is just as important as the food or the money.”

“In the foreseeable future, it looks like it’s only going to divorce,” Tibbitts said. “We are just really grateful for all the people who volunteer, because we need all the help we can get right now.”

“It truly is a juggling act,” Bott added. “We’ve been doing this for 118 years, it’s not going to go away soon.”

The United States Postal Service is helping with the Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive on Saturday, May 14. Mail carriers will deliver non-perishable food items that residents leave in a bag or box by their mailboxes by 9 am, and donations can be made at Utah Food Bank warehouses or Harmons grocers.

Those facing food insecurity can dial 211 for help finding the nearest food pantry or for assistance with food stamps and other programs.

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