Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival in the Ozarks, local nonprofits that fight hunger are in other battles to keep up with the challenges of rising inflation, ongoing supply chain issues and increased demand for services.
Ozarks Food Harvest Inc., which serves a 28-county service area as southwest Missouri’s only food bank, is currently distributing meals at a pace equal to the early months of the pandemic, said President and CEO Bart Brown. The nonprofit’s network consists of 270 partners.
Before the pandemic, the food bank’s annual distribution to its network averaged 18 million-20 million meals, Brown said. During the height of COVID, that increased to 23 million – a total the agency expects to reach again, if not surpass, this year.
“The needs have not gone down,” he said, noting demand is up among all demographics, but especially senior citizens and children. “It’s continued to remain at the same height that we were at when we were in disaster response mode. Summer usually does have a spike in the need for food assistance because school is out, and the day care options are limited for low-income working families.”
Supply and demand
Nonprofit Least of These Inc. is one of the 85 food pantries supplied by Ozarks Food Harvest. Kristy Carter is executive director of the 24-year-old organization that serves Christian County.
It was a record year for people served in 2021 for Least of These, she said. It served 10,546 families and 28,066 people and distributed nearly 2 million pounds of food. The food total was an 18% increase from 2020. Through May, the families served are up nearly 8% from last year, she said.
“It’s a ripple effect from the pandemic,” Carter said. “It’s kind of a perfect storm, in a way. We’re seeing more families that need food assistance. Donations are down. During the pandemic, we had great support. In the donor world, people are thinking the pandemic is over, and that’s not necessarily the case.”
Carter said monetary donations are down almost 11% from 2021. The organization has a $3.3 million operating budget and is trying hard to not dig into its savings account, she said, noting ideas for new fundraisers and ways to tap into its donor base are under consideration.
“We’re fighting food prices as well as shortages and all kinds of other things as we go through this,” Carter said, adding she sees no end in sight this year.
That’s not to say the nonprofit was unprepared for the challenges, she said.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we made the decision we were going to carry a three-month supply of food on hand at all times,” she said, adding cereal, crackers and pasta have been especially difficult to keep in stock. “We have stretched some items to a six-month supply on hand if we can.”
As an Ozarks Food Harvest member agency, Least of These receives some of its products from the Springfield organization. But, like other food banks nationwide, the supply is smaller than last year, officials say. In May 2021, Least of These received 420,000 pounds of donated items from Ozarks Food Harvest, Carter said. That dropped to 317,000 pounds last month.
“That’s a huge difference in the amount of food,” she said. “They’re not hoarding it; they just don’t have it either.”
Meanwhile, inflation hit a new 40-year high in May, with prices rising 8.6% from a year ago, the largest increase since December 1981, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Rising food, gas and shelter prices all contributed to the hike.
The food at home index last month rose 11.9% over the last year, the largest 12-month increase since April 1979, according to BLS data. All six major grocery store food group indexes increased over the span, with five of the six rising more than 10%. The index for meats, poultry, fish and eggs increased the most, climbing 14.2%.
But the increased food costs extend beyond grocery store shoppers, Brown said.
“Food banks across the country are facing critical challenges to meeting the demand for additional food,” Brown said.
He said the No. 1 reason is the amount of federal food running through the system has been cut severely compared with last year as well as the 2020 height of COVID-19 when the U.S. had a lot of emergency program assistance, such as stimulus funding and additional food stamp waivers. “That’s all gone and the amount of actual food that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is able to purchase and supply to food banks, such as us, is half of what it was,” he said, noting USDA commodity foods this year have dropped to 5 million pounds from 10 million in 2021.
Ozarks Food Harvest spokesperson Jordan Browning said the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, provided a few government temporary benefit additions amid the pandemic. That included a 15% increase from the federal government to provide pandemic SNAP benefits. Additionally, the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Program was offered by the state to Missouri families who had a student approved for free or reduced-priced meals during the 2020-21 school year. Both concluded last year in Missouri, Browning said.
“Some states that are still out there are still receiving P-EBT if their state government has asked for it from the USDA,” Browning said.
Ozarks Food Harvest, which has a $34 million budget for fiscal 2022, also buys some of its food and is struggling to source it, Brown said. In many instances when food is sourced, it’s tremendously expensive, he added.
“A truckload of saltine crackers, which right now is very difficult to find due to supply chain issues, usually costs about $20,000 to purchase,” Brown said, adding the cost earlier this month was $32,000.
Carter said Least of These recently purchased four pallets of ground beef, which typically lasts the organization about two months to distribute as families get one pound of ground beef per monthly visit. The four pallets cost $10,000, a 66% increase from its last purchase several months ago, she said.
At Ozarks Food Harvest, ground beef costs rose to over $100,000 for a truckload this month, a jump from $81,000 in June 2021, Brown said.
Rising fuel prices, which average $4.68 in Missouri as of June 16, according to AAA, are driving up transportation expenses for Ozarks Food Harvest.
He said some of the nonprofit’s financial pain is eased by monetary donations, which are up 30% since 2019.
Brown said the agency distributes food for free to its nonprofit partners using 16 semitrucks. Fuel costs to transport items from its 102,000 square feet of warehouse space in Springfield to the agencies were a $1.4 million budget item for the current fiscal year. In the next budget, fuel is estimated to increase to $2.5 million, he said.
“Ozarks Food Harvest is committed to bearing these costs for the network of agencies that we serve,” he said. “They’re not going to see this increase, but it is up to us to raise additional funds.”
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