At the start 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 struggle to put food on the table.
As expected, demand in food pantries has increased during the pandemic, but now it shows no signs of slowing down thanks to steadily rising prices for food, housing and gasoline.
“The pandemic has really leveled the playing field, which means everyone has had challenges throughout,” Bott said. “Then, all of a sudden, inflation appeared. And so the same families that were struggling with COVID are still struggling now, hampered by inflation. It affects us all…but if you’re a family that’s been impacted by all of this because of 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 demand at the busiest time of the pandemic, and even now it’s more than twice as busy as normal. At the same time, demand for food in pantries is on the rise, with frequent supply chain issues making some items – such as infant formula – harder for consumers to find.
“If the stores don’t have these kinds of items, it’s not something 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 prepare for what’s to come. could happen next. “Baby food and infant formula are things that we are very careful and very careful with because of expiry dates.”
Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, a food pantry in Salt Lake City, said the organization tries to keep as much stock as possible because there’s nowhere else people can turn. .
“Usually we’re on the line,” he said. “When people come to see us, they have already used other options. … If we don’t have something, there’s no great place to refer people for things like formula.
The Utah Food Bank — which supplies more than 200 food pantries across the state — gets the majority of its food from large commercial donors or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to Bott, they’ve 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 pantries, as well as dealing with transportation costs.
“If this does not happen on time, and soon, it will be very difficult for us to maintain the level of service. We can have the product, but I won’t have the staff and I won’t have the fuel to keep these trucks on the road,” Bott said.
An unprecedented dilemma
Tibbitts, who has worked for Crossroads for two decades, said he had never seen such a request. Previous surges, he said, were usually driven by high unemployment rates, such as in the years following the 2008 recession. Now, despite the low unemployment rate, more and more Utahns are turn to food pantries because their wages cannot keep up with the price of goods.
“For the families we serve, the price of food is bad, but part of the reason it’s so bad is that rent is going up twice as fast as food,” he said. “(People) just get stretched in ways they couldn’t have anticipated. …Normally when we have 2% unemployment, the pantry slows down as people can get better paying jobs, but the cost of living, especially for tenant families, is rising faster than wages . It’s scary.”
“We didn’t see such a large increase when the unemployment rate was so low. Never,” he continued.
Tibbitts is more concerned about what’s yet to come, given that some of the few remaining COVID-19 assistance programs — including an expanded food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — could cancel benefits later this year.
When that happens, he said, “pantries across the country are expecting a big boost.”
“We’re seeing an increase now, but when that happens people nationally refer to it as a hunger cliff,” Tibbitts said. “That’s what worries us. Right now we are seeing an increase, but we are generally able to keep up with it. If things get worse, it will be quite difficult to keep enough food on the shelves. »
The country could be in even worse shape in the event of a true recession, he said, because even more Utahns could face food insecurity.
“I’m not used to seeing the economy so impacted,” Tibbitts said. “First the pandemic, and now a war in Europe. Hard to know what to predict. I prefer not to speculate, I don’t want to give the universe bad ideas.
“It’s not going away anytime soon”
While they understand that many families who could normally afford an excess are now struggling to meet basic needs, Bott and Tibbitts encouraged Utahns to help in any way they can.
“The one thing I think people should always remember is that in addition to food and money, your neighborhood food pantries also need your time,” Bott said. “Sometimes volunteer help is just as important as food or money.”
“For the foreseeable future, it looks like it’s only going to get worse,” Tibbitts said. “We are just so grateful to everyone who is volunteering because we need all the help we can get at this time.”
“It’s really a juggling act,” added Bott. “We’ve been doing this for 118 years, it’s not going away anytime soon.”
The United States Postal Service is participating in the Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive on Saturday, May 14. Letter carriers will deliver non-perishable food that residents leave in a bag or box near their mailbox before 9 a.m., and donations can be made to Utah Food Bank Warehouses or Harmons Grocers.
People facing food insecurity can call 211 for help finding the nearest food pantry or for help with food stamps and other programs.