Impacts of inflation on the community and food banks

While the current rate of inflation affects us all, it is once again hitting our low-income neighbors the hardest. As many pandemic relief programs end at the same time as food and gasoline prices rise, a growing number of community members are once again relying on food relief programs. In recent months, local food access nonprofits have experienced a further increase in need.

A North Valley Food Bank customer, T., began to struggle in late December. She found herself in a difficult situation and had to spend all her savings on a family emergency. Previously on a tight budget and only occasionally having to go to the food bank, T. said “the last few months have been particularly difficult. We are completely dependent on the food we get from the food bank now. It’s the only way to keep paying the rent and keep the gas in our tank.

At the NW Montana Veterans Food Pantry, a customer said he regularly drives 65 miles to get his monthly box of food. With the rising price of gasoline, he will no longer be able to do this in the future and the only way to feed his family will no longer be accessible to him.

In the first quarter of 2022, all local food banks experienced a steady increase in their clientele. At the NW Montana Veterans Pantry, an average of 26 new veterans registered their families for assistance each month, doubling the total number of people served.

North Valley Food Bank saw a total of 215 new households, a 69% increase over the previous year, during the three-month period and served more than 100 households in a single day – the highest number highest on record – in the free grocery store a few weeks ago. Flathead Food Bank saw a 33% increase in visits in March over the previous two months and expects to serve nearly 3,000 households per month as food insecurity increases.

Similarly, Land to Hand Montana has seen a 75-100% increase in service needs between the pre-pandemic period and recent weeks. More organizations are asking for their weekend food banks and last week their Thursday distribution doubled.

Over the past two years, pandemic-related food programs such as Pandemic EBT (P-EBT), Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) waivers, and school meal flexibilities have reduced barriers to feeding Montana’s starving children. At the same time, these programs have enabled non-profit food access organizations to meet the increased demand for our services by sharing needs through public and private funding. Congress must vote on continuing these programs in the coming weeks and if they are not renewed, we will see a further increase in need.

P-EBT has reached 97,500 Montana children and has closed that hunger gap for many Montana families. The SFSP flexibilities were only temporary and under typical program rules, children are required to eat meals from the summer food service program on site. This requirement is a burden on families and creates barriers for those who wish to grab meals on the go or ask parents to take home meals for their children. Finally, school meal flexibilities allowed schools to provide breakfast and lunch to all students without the burden of excessive paperwork and student meal debt that often became the responsibility of school districts.

Since the pandemic, some communities in Montana have seen the biggest increase in housing prices since the Great Depression. This increase has exacerbated an already tight budget as benefits diminish in every way. What does it mean to feed families in Montana? Although some of us have seen our salaries increase, it is not keeping pace with housing costs and inflation. As many pandemic-related safety nets come to an end, we are no better off – on the contrary, many families are struggling more than before.

While the average percentage of the cost of rent, food and gas accounts for 40% of Americans’ budget, that figure is closer to 60% for food bank customers, according to a recent Washington Post article.

Inflation not only affects individual members of the community, but also has a direct impact on our organizational budgets. In addition to the growing demand for support, we are seeing our operational costs increase. Food prices are skyrocketing, fuel costs are at an all-time high, and our utility costs are skyrocketing. While all of our local food banks rely heavily on food donations, we must also purchase 25%-33% of our food inventory through the Montana Food Bank Network, grocery stores, local farmers, and other distributors. Average food prices have risen 40% since before the pandemic, with macaroni and cheese seeing a record 93% increase. A gallon of milk went from $2.78 to $3.38.

We are grateful to our donor community who invest in us financially to purchase food for those we serve, allowing us to buy what is needed based on our operations and buy in bulk from Montana Food Bank Network to keep our prices low. Even with a 40% increase in overall food purchases, on average, our purchasing power is still 70% cheaper compared to what people can buy at the grocery store. Many people think that as food banks we receive federal and state funds. We don’t. Likewise, the NW Montana Veterans Food Pantry does not receive funding from the VA. While 25% of Land to Hand’s funding in 2021 came from the Montana Office of Public Instruction, this funding is no longer available. We all rely solely on funds provided by our communities.

All of us local food security organizations are interconnected by our missions and our passion. Over the past two years, we’ve jointly planned how to get through Covid, made contingency plans for how to deal with staff shortages that would close our doors for days, or how to respond to grocery store bailout cuts. Now we are strategizing again on how to feed increasing numbers of people for an extended period of time.

Although we are all independently run food banks, we are in constant communication and share food and resources. In August, for example, when cherries are plentiful, a donation to the Bigfork Food Bank quickly ends up being couriered between agencies to share the abundance and ensure no food goes to waste. We do everything we can to continuously provide healthy food to members of our community in need. But we depend on the support of all of you, our communities, to fully address food insecurity in Flathead County and beyond. Hunger in a community impacts the health of all of us. Let’s continue to work together to make sure all of our neighbors have access to the food they need.

Cinnamon Davis, Northwestern Montana Vets Pantry; Gretchen Boyer, Montana Hand Soil; Jamie Quinn, Flathead Food Bank; Sophie Albert, North Valley Food Bank.

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