Challenges that were heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to persist for area nonprofits providing food distribution, leading to record-high numbers of clients seeking services over the past two years, officials say.
Inflation is up roughly 6% from this time last year and about three times the prepandemic average, while food prices were 9.5% higher in February 2023 from a year prior, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Along with higher bills for necessities such as housing and utilities, these factors are contributing to the increased service demand, said Ozarks Food Harvest Inc. President and CEO Bart Brown.
The nonprofit based in Springfield has a 28-county service area and is the lone food bank in southwest Missouri. It serves 270 hunger-relief organizations in its network, and its annual meal distribution to those agencies regularly exceeds 20 million, according to officials. At the food pantries within the network, Brown said just over 50,000 individuals were being served per month in 2021. That monthly total was over 60,000 by the end of 2022, he said, adding the amount is roughly the same for the first quarter of this year.
“At the height of COVID, we were seeing folks that were affected because their businesses were temporarily shut down or there were service workers out of jobs. Now what we’re finding is that our network is serving folks that are working and in the labor force,” he said, noting some may have more than one job to try and make ends meet.
Those served annually at Least of These Inc., one of nearly 90 food pantries supplied by Ozarks Food Harvest, have reached record totals, officials say. In 2021, the nonprofit, which serves residents of Christian County, aided over 28,000 people, which included nearly 10,600 families. Last year, those totals rose to around 36,000 people – up nearly 30% – and almost 12,900 families, said Kristy Carter, executive director.
“Absolutely, we’re past that for good now,” she said of its prior annual average of serving under 30,000 people. “We’re serving folks who are working and who just can’t stretch their budgets far enough for the month.”
Carter said bills for the pantry’s clients are higher, and wages haven’t gone up enough for most to counter the rise in inflation and other factors, such as higher rent.
“How do you absorb an increase in rent of $300-$500 a month, plus your groceries, plus your gas and utilities? It’s snowballing,” she said.
Consumers aren’t the only ones fighting higher food costs, Carter said. While the nonprofit is no longer paying $5 for a dozen eggs like it was a few months ago, she said it helps that Least of These sources products from multiple locations.
“We’re not solely relying on the food bank or Associated Wholesale Grocers, for example,” she said, noting while Least of These tries to keep a three- to six-month supply of food in stock, high demand is cutting into availability. “We’re closer now to a three-month supply on hand than a six-month supply. But we are still constantly seeing an overwhelming issue with sourcing food that we need.”
Food costs have been rising, Carter said. In its first eight months of the current fiscal year, Least of These has spent over $432,000 in food versus last fiscal year’s total of $223,000. That equates to $54,000 per month in the current fiscal year compared with over $18,000 a year prior, she said.
At People Helping People of Republic, Missouri Inc., an all-volunteer nonprofit, the pantry shelves look a little low, said President Cindy Crabtree.
“I had to buy canned fruit today because that’s one of the items that always goes in food boxes,” she said on April 10, in advance of the nonprofit’s weekly food distribution day at its Republic facility.
Demand for services is as high as Crabtree has ever seen in her 20 years of work with the organization, which serves residents within the Republic and Clever school districts. It served 194 people in June 2022 and by the end of December the monthly total hit 334, an increase of roughly 70%.
When comparing the first quarter this year to 2022, she said the number of families served is up 74%, while there’s a 139% increase for individuals.
“Typically, in February and March, when people get their income tax refunds, the demand drops some,” she said. “We have not seen that this year.”
Crabtree said she’s hopeful the Stamp Out Hunger food drive, held annually on the second Saturday in May by the National Association of Letter Carriers, will provide a welcome boost for food service agencies.
Many rely heavily on that event to provide additional products through the summer months, she said. The drive has delivered more than 1.82 billion pounds of food the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Postal Service.
Making an investment
Ozarks Food Harvest spent nearly $2.5 million on food in the last six months of 2022, up nearly $1 million from the same period last year and $1.5 million prepandemic. Aside from increased demand within its network, Brown said the amount of food purchased and supplied by USDA remains in decline. Ozarks Food Harvest received $3.1 million in commodities from the federal agency last year, a nearly 30% dip from 2021. He said the end of emergency program assistance, such as stimulus funding and food stamp waivers, contributed to the cuts in federal dollars for food.
Despite the increased spending on food, Brown said the food bank won’t pass on costs to its network partners.
“We’re just finding a way to do this ourselves. Our partners can’t absorb this,” he said. “They’re the ones depending on us because they just don’t have the resources to deal with these increases. They’re the ones on the ground providing the volunteers to distribute this food to folks.”
Brown said one way Ozarks Food Harvest is absorbing the higher expenses is with increased donations. While monetary donations were down slightly in 2022 at roughly $5.3 million from $5.5 million in 2021, grants were up. Over $933,000 in grants were received last year, an increase from approximately $362,000 in 2021. Brown said the agency has sought out more grants to help meet its fundraising needs.
While the hunger relief organization leaders say they have no intention of diverting from their mission to serve clients, the existing challenges are likely to persist beyond this year.
“I’d love to say there is hope on the horizon, but I don’t foresee any additional government assistance, and I don’t foresee any programs that are coming out to ease things,” Carter said.
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