By ANITA SNOW and EUGENE GARCIA, Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) — Long lines at America’s food banks are making a comeback as workers weighed down by inflation turn to donations to help feed their families.
With gas prices rising along with grocery costs, many people are seeking charity food for the first time, and more are arriving on foot.
Inflation in the US is at its highest point in 40 years and gas prices have been rising since April 2020, with the average cost across the country briefly hitting $5 a gallon in June. Rapidly rising rents and the end of federal COVID-19 relief have also taken a financial toll.
Food banks, which had begun to see some relief as people returned to work after the pandemic shutdowns, are struggling to meet the last need even as federal programs provide less food to distribute, donations from stores Groceries are down and cash gifts don’t go that far.
Tomasina John was among hundreds of families lined up in various car lanes that circled the block one recent day in front of the St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix. John said that her family had never visited a food bank before because her husband had easily supported her and her four children with her construction work.
“But it’s really impossible to get by without help,” said John, who traveled with a neighbor to share gas costs as they lounged in the scorching desert sun. “The prices are too high.”
Jesús Pascual was also in line.
“It’s a real struggle,” said Pascual, a janitor who estimates he spends several hundred dollars a month on groceries for himself, his wife and their five children ages 11 to 19.
The same scene is playing out across the country, with food bank workers predicting a tough summer ahead of demand.
The spike in food prices comes after state governments ended COVID-19 disaster declarations that temporarily allowed higher benefits under SNAP, the federal food stamp program that covers about 40 million Americans. .
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to get better overnight,” said Katie Fitzgerald, president and chief operating officer of the national network of food banks Feeding America. “The demand is really compounding the supply challenges.”
Charitable food distribution has remained well above the amounts given out before the coronavirus pandemic, even though demand fell somewhat late last year.
Feeding America officials say second-quarter data won’t be ready until August, but they’re hearing anecdotes from food banks across the country that demand is increasing.
The Phoenix Food Bank’s main distribution center distributed food packages to 4,271 families during the third week of June, a 78 percent increase over the 2,396 families served during the same week last year, the St. Mary, Jerry Brown.
More than 900 families line up at the distribution center every weekday to receive a government emergency food box filled with items like canned beans, peanut butter and rice, Brown said. St. Mary’s aggregates items purchased with cash donations, as well as foods provided by local supermarkets, such as bread, carrots and pork chops, in a combo package worth about $75.
Distribution by the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Northern California has increased since reaching a pandemic low earlier this year, rising from 890 households served on the third Friday in January to 1,410 households on the third Friday in June. said the director of marketing. Michael Alfest.
At the Houston Food Bank, the largest food bank in the US, where pre-pandemic food distribution levels briefly peaked at 1 million pounds per day, an average of 610,000 pounds per day.
That’s more than the 500,000 pounds a day before the pandemic, spokeswoman Paula Murphy said.
Murphy said cash donations haven’t slowed down, but inflation ensures they won’t go that far.
Food bank executives said the sudden surge in demand caught them by surprise.
“Last year, we expected a decline in demand for 2022 because the economy was doing so well,” said Michael Flood, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. “This problem with inflation came up quite suddenly.”
“A lot of these are people who are working and did well during the pandemic and maybe even saw their wages go up,” Flood said. “But they have also seen food prices rise beyond their budgets.”
The Los Angeles bank gave away around 30 million pounds of food during the first three months of this year, slightly less than the previous quarter but still much more than the 22 million pounds given away during the first quarter of 2020.
Feeding America’s Fitzgerald calls on the USDA and Congress to find a way to restore hundreds of millions of dollars in commodities recently lost with the end of several temporary programs to provide food to people in need. USDA products, which can typically account for up to 30% of food distributed by banks, accounted for more than 40% of all food distributed in fiscal year 2021 by the Feeding America network.
“There is a critical need for the public sector to buy more food now,” Fitzgerald said.
During the Trump administration, the USDA bought several billion dollars worth of pork, apples, dairy, potatoes and other products in a program that gave most of it to food banks. The “Food Purchase and Distribution Program” designed to help American farmers harmed by tariffs and other practices of US trading partners has since ended. $1.2 billion was authorized for fiscal year 2019 and another $1.4 billion authorized for fiscal year 2020.
Another temporary USDA “Farmers to Families” program that provided emergency relief provided more than 155 million boxes of food for needy families in the US during the height of the pandemic before ending on May 31, 2021.
For now, there is enough food, but there may not be in the future, said Michael G. Manning, president and CEO of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank in Louisiana. He said high fuel costs also make it much more expensive to collect and distribute food.
The USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which included Farmers to Families, was “a godsend” for the Alameda County Community Food Bank, providing 5 billion pounds of staples in a single year, spokesman Altfest said.
“So losing that was a huge success,” he said.
Altfest said that up to 10% of people now looking for food are first-timers, and a growing number show up on foot rather than in cars to save gas.
“The food they receive from us helps them save already stretched budgets for other expenses like gas, rent, diapers and baby formula,” he said.
Meanwhile, the bank’s food purchases have jumped from a monthly average of $250,000 before the pandemic to $1.5 million now due to food prices. Skyrocketing gasoline costs forced the bank to increase its fuel budget by 66%, Altfest said.
Supply chain issues are also an issue, requiring the food bank to become more aggressive with procurement.
“We used to reorder when our inventory was down to three weeks’ worth, now we reorder up to six weeks earlier,” Altfest said.
He said the food bank has already ordered and paid for whole chickens, stuffings, cranberries and other holiday items that 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’re seeing plenty of families along with seniors like 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, cardboard boxes or pushed wheelbarrows to pick up their food packages from the distribution site served by the Los Angeles bank.
“Food prices are very high and are getting higher every day,” said Martinez, who expressed gratitude for the bags of black beans, ground beef and other groceries. “I am very happy that they can help us.”
AP video journalist Eugene Garcia contributed from Montebello, California.
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