Employees of Bread for the City, a respected charity in America’s capital, thought they were ready for this year’s annual Holiday Helpers food drive before Thanksgiving. The COVID-19 pandemic had faded, but inflation was high, so he budgeted for 12,000 meals, 20% more than normal pre-pandemic levels.
But they quickly became overwhelmed, with long lines of customers waiting for free turkeys and $50 debit cards to buy groceries. They were forced to close three days early after helping 16,000 people, far more than they expected.
“We don’t want to traumatize our community again by having to wait four hours outside for a turkey,” said Ashley Dome, the charity’s director of development. “We are not prepared to have hundreds of people queuing up on a city street.”
The Bread for the City experience reflects a larger dynamic that is unfolding across the country. What many Americans expected would be the first normal Christmas season in three years, instead the hunger crisis looms large once again, with Christmas on the horizon.
A September report by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based economic and social policy research group, estimated that nearly 1 in 5 adults experienced food insecurity at home last summer, almost the same number as the year before the pandemic. but a sharp increase compared to spring 2021. According to the report, black and Hispanic adults reported higher rates of food insecurity than their white counterparts.
“During the pandemic, no one had a job and no one had money,” said Nancy Murphy, 45, a caregiver who spent last week selling frozen turkeys and groceries from donations at the Church of God New Wine Assembly Parish the Redeemed. Goods were picked up. , in Northeast Washington. “Now they are back to their jobs, but the money is not enough. It’s still tough.”
The government estimates that food prices will rise between 9.5% and 10.5% this year. And it is putting a strain on the budgets of many Americans and the food banks that help them, especially after massive inflows of pandemic aid ended.
“Inflation has been the story of the year,” said Michael Altfest, director of community engagement at the Alameda County Food Bank in Oakland, California.
Altfest said the level of need in the community is still 50-70% higher than pre-pandemic levels, and about 30% of calls to the food bank’s emergency helpline are first-time callers.
In many cases, charities and food banks had prepared for higher numbers due to inflation, only to find that the level of need was far higher than their projections.
The Capital Area Food Bank in Washington originally estimated it would need to distribute about 43 million meals during the July 2022 to June 2023 budget year. Now, four months into that fiscal year, it’s already 22% above those predictions.
“It was an informed prediction with good data for four or five months,” said Radha Muthiah, CEO of the food bank. “We always think of Thanksgiving and Christmas as when everyone goes to the beach in the summer.”
In Illinois, Jim Conwell of the Greater Chicago Food Bank says the need is still high. “So we’re buying more and spending more on what we buy,” he said.
His organization’s network served almost 30% more homes in August 2022 than last August.
“Families where things were going well are facing a whole new challenge, or even if they’re employed, or have multiple jobs or sources of income, (money) just It is not performing the same as it did two years ago,” he added.
Altfest said that higher prices are forcing people to make “food sacrifices”.
For example, he said, the price of chicken has more than doubled from 78 cents per pound (453 grams) last year to $1.64 per pound this year. Farm Bureau Foundation estimates put turkey costs at 21% higher than last year. And marketing researcher Datasembly estimates that a 16-ounce (453-gram) box of stuffing costs 14% more than last year, and a five-pound (2.27-kg) bag of russet potatoes costs an average of $45.5%. More than.
Mike Manning, president of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank in Louisiana, draws a distinction between rising levels of hunger due to the pandemic and the current crisis. During the pandemic, millions of people lost their jobs and income, creating an immediate wave of need that he compared to the aftermath of a hurricane.
But the current crisis has been a slow and steady escalation that began in late February and has continued to escalate. Manning said her food bank has seen a 10% to 15% increase in local food insecurity over the past two months.
“You are talking to people who have low incomes and who have multiple jobs; You only have to think about the cost of going from job to job, with gasoline eating up whatever extra money they’re trying to earn,” he said. “What are they going to do? Do they pass gas and so can’t go to work, or do they give up on food and come back and ask us for help?
“With no clear indication of when the inflation wave might subside in the long run,” said Chicago Food Bank’s Conwell, “it almost feels like a marathon with no finish line.”
Dom recalls the lines from Bread for the City “exceedingly lingered” for weeks.
The fact that customers were willing to wait outside for hours for a turkey and a debit card speaks to the “intensity and depth of need”.
Dom also believes there is a psychological element at play: After two consecutive pandemic-hit Christmas seasons, families are desperately yearning for something close to normalcy.
“People have avoided meeting their families for the last two years. So this year there is more pressure to get groceries and have mass meals,” he said.
Associated Press writers Anita Snow in Phoenix and Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit contributed to this report.