Photo by Aaron Doucett on Unsplash

Andy Lo first felt the squeeze of inflation in early 2021, when he noticed the price of food go up.

“I used to get a lot for $100 – now one cart of groceries is almost $200,” Lo bemoaned.

A freelance photographer, Lo also helps run his family’s grocery store, Goodwill Grocery, located in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood. Monthly groceries to feed himself, his wife and other members of his family now costs $2,000 from $1,500 pre-inflation while the monthly costs to stock the family grocery store has risen to $10,000 a month from the previous range between $5,000 to $6,000, Lo said.

Tight profit margins and high food prices mean the Lo family have utilized local food pantries in Greenwood for monthly food assistance. They are not alone, as high food prices have caused millions of Americans throughout the country to turn to their local neighborhood food pantry.

Inflation has created a double whammy for food pantries and food banks – not only are they facing a surge in demand for emergency food assistance, they’re contending with the sting of inflation themselves as it’s become more costly to run operations and purchase food. The end of extended SNAP benefits earlier this year has also contributed to a rise in people seeking food assistance.

Food Banks Feel the Pinch of Inflation

The Mississippi Food Network, a nonprofit food bank based in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, distributes 1.5 million pounds of food each month, helping to feed approximately 150,000 Mississippians. It is responsible for 56 counties in the state, many of which are rural and lack grocery stores and other pivotal resources. It provides food to its 400 partner agencies, which includes churches, food pantries and community centers, on a monthly basis.

The food bank began to realize the effects of inflation last summer on two fronts. One, more people began to show up to the food bank’s mobile food deliveries and two, the food bank’s member partners reported a rise in requests for food assistance, particularly from the elderly and working families, according to Cassandra Mobley, director of agency relations and programs for Mississippi Food Network.

“Seniors who live on fixed incomes, inflation has really impacted them in that they just don’t have an increase in the amount of money they get every month,” Mobley said. “When their grocery bill goes up, something else has gotta give.”

The cost of running operations has also increased for the Mississippi Food Network. Fuel costs in particular have gone up, making it more costly for the food bank’s 50 to 60 monthly trips it makes to deliver food to its partner agencies, Mobley said.

Meanwhile, food and cash donations for the food bank have also dipped, she added.

Mississippi Food Network is one of 200 food bank partners of Feeding America, a national network of food banks. In 2021, 53 million people sought charitable food assistance, according to Feeding America, and a November 2022 report indicated that 90% of its member food banks “reported seeing increased or steady demand for services” amid inflation.

Nationally, food banks still feel the strain of inflation, where, according to a survey filed by Feeding America in March, 75% of responding food banks reported that they either experienced an increased demand for food assistance or that demand remained the same as it was in February.

Higher Food Prices Are Causing Headaches

While the latest Consumer Price Index report shows that the price of food remained unchanged and food at home – groceries – actually declined 0.3% in March, it has in recent years been too high for consumers.

For Lo, one loaf of bread, which had cost $0.88 for five years, now costs $1.32, while a two pound bag of frozen french prices, previously priced at $1.49, is now $3, he said.

“I’ve been doing the grocery business since 1997. These last two years have been horrible,” Lo said.

Likewise, Feeding America’s network of food banks has felt the effects of inflation, which it assessed in a report released in February.

Food banks are now paying 30% more in food purchases, from $0.59 average per pound of food a year ago to $0.77 average per pound of food currently, in order to keep up with demand for emergency food assistance, according to the report. Food banks are also making twice as many truckloads for food deliveries now then before the pandemic, all while dealing with a 20% increase in transportation costs.

“Higher prices affect the ability of food banks to source, move, store and distribute food to people facing food insecurity,” the report stated.

Food CPI, Year over Year

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For Mississippi Food Network, inflation has affected what type of food products the food bank is able to procure.

Meat products have become harder to get, Mobley said, because of its high price: “Protein is one of the things that is very difficult to purchase because it’s so expensive. A truckload might cost an excess of $100,000. That’s one truckload. One truckload doesn’t even last us a week.”

Peanut butter – a valued food item given its shelf-life and nutritional value – “is something else that has not been easy to get for some reason, which sounds kind of crazy. It’s very expensive when you buy it by the truckload,” Mobley said.

Despite these challenges, she said the food bank is trying to adapt.

“We’re a nonprofit, so we’re just trying to get by with as little as possible. We want to spend as much of our money on programs as we can, not a utility bill or a truck repair or new tires,” she said.

The Economic Significance of Food Assistance

Food banks, given their often barrier-free access for services, unlike government assistance which can entail going through various bureaucratic hurdles, are a pivotal source for those in need, according to David Just, an economics professor at Cornell University.

Just, along with Anne Byrne, a research agricultural economist at USDA’s Economic Research Service, co-authored a study published in November that sought to understand the economic value of food banks for those who use them.

Assessing internal data from the Food Bank for Larimer County in northern Colorado, Just and Byrne found the value of food pantry services for families to be between $40 to $60 per trip to a food pantry, and, on an annual basis, between $600 to $1,000.

Extrapolating those results nationally means food pantry access nationwide provides clients between $19 billion to $28 billion annually, according to the study.

Regarding inflation, Just said it’s had a direct impact on cash donations to food banks and pantries, “which is a little disturbing,” he said.

In “visible crises,” such as a natural disaster, there’s usually a bump in donations that currently isn’t happening with inflation since it isn’t as “salient” a crisis, Just said. “It’s hard to rally a whole bunch of people around inflation.”

“A majority of people are going to end up using a food pantry at some point in their lives,” Just added. “It ends up being very good for something that is temporary and tides you over until you get more permanent help.”

The End of Extended SNAP Benefits

Earlier amid the COVID-19 pandemic, benefits under the SNAP program were boosted by an emergency allotments program. Since March, those extended benefits have been terminated and households now see anywhere between $95 to $250 less in benefits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

mRelief, a tech nonprofit based in Chicago that streamlines the application process for SNAP, has seen a 5% increase in people visiting the platform over the last two years to see if they’re eligible for SNAP benefits, Zareena Myen, mRelief’s executive director, said. “But that’s 5% of hundreds of thousands of people. We helped a little over 400,000 people last year.”

The end of SNAP’s extended benefits, and SNAP budgets not “stretching as far, I think, is a big part of why the food banks are seeing an increase” in demand for assistance, Myen said.

At Goodwill Grocery, Lo estimates 20% of the customers use EBT cards, who have also been affected by inflation.

“The price (of food) goes up but the SNAP value didn’t go up so they cannot keep up with it,” Lo said of his customers.

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