Record inflation driving increased demand at local food pantries – Shaw Local

Two local food pantries are continuing to see an increase in clients almost three years after the COVID-19 pandemic started.

But unlike the influx of clients in the beginning of the pandemic, when many people lost their jobs, the culprit over the past year has been inflation, Batavia Interfaith Food Pantry Executive Director Eileen Pasero said.

Volunteer John Weigand of Batavia stocks shelves at the Batavia Interfaith Food Pantry and Clothes Closet.

“Our demand is much higher now. We’re signing up at least one new family every day, and a few days ago, we signed up five families,” she said. “Families can handle COVID, but they can’t handle inflation. When food costs 30% more than last year, that’s when people struggle. It’s not just groceries – prices on everything are going up.”

Pasero said government assistance programs helped keep demand at the food pantry lower during the pandemic. Now that many of those programs have ended, more people are struggling now than at the height of the pandemic.

The food pantry served about 60 families a week during pandemic-related closures. More recently, it serves between 80 and 100 families each week, Pasero said.

“The majority of our families have always been working families who are just struggling with how expensive everything is,” she said. “We have families where one month they’re OK and the next month they’re not. We don’t want people to have to make a choice between [buying] medicine or food.”

Volunteer Melissa Sulita of Batavia stocks shelves at the Batavia Interfaith Food Pantry and Clothes Closet.

It’s a similar situation at the Between Friends Food Pantry of Sugar Grove. Executive Director Shari Frieders said that like the Batavia food pantry, there is an increase in new families seeking help. In the six years she’s been at the pantry, Frieders has never seen this many families registering for services, she said.

“We’ve got a lot of seniors and folks on shoestring budgets who are getting hit terribly hard with inflation,” she said. “Food insecurity can happen to anyone, and we’re seeing that. A lot of people may not qualify for government assistance, and that’s where food pantries can step in and help.”

Volunteer Mary Walt of Big Rock stocks the shelves at the Between Friends Food Pantry of Sugar Grove.

As with many food pantries around the country, the number of clients spiked during the early days of the pandemic, but then came down. But with inflation, the number of families served each week is about 70, compared with 40 families each week about a year ago, Frieders said.

Maeven Sipes, chief philanthropy officer at the Northern Illinois Food Bank, agreed that rising costs is the driving factor for the increase in people seeking food bank help.

“Many neighbors don’t have savings and their incomes aren’t enough to cover the increased expenses they are seeing for food, fuel, utilities and other needs,” she said in an email. “If more of their budget needs go toward paying bills, coming to a food pantry to supplement their food budget is a great strategy to get by.”

The holidays also are a time of year when many food pantries traditionally see an increase in demand, Sipes said.

“We want to be there providing the food our neighbors need so they can find ways to celebrate the holidays, however that means to them,” she said. “In November and December, we always provide our Holiday Meal Boxes, which provide all the fixings of a traditional holiday meal complete with turkey or ham. This year, we will distribute 60,000 boxes, which is double the amount we did in 2019.”

At the same time demand is increasing, donations from grocery stores, as well as individual donors, are down. Pasero said the number of items the Batavia pantry is able to purchase now from the Northern Illinois Food Bank has been much lower beause of increasing food costs. She said donations from grocery stores also are down, in part because they don’t have as much extra to give to pantries.

Some of the areas of need at the Batavia Interfaith Food Pantry and Clothes Closet include soups.

“The most effective way people can help is to make a financial gift because our purchasing power is much greater in that we can purchase $8 worth of groceries for $1,” Pasero said. “Our dollars stretch a lot further. Our needs also change very quickly, and when we receive financial gifts, we can pivot much quicker to get the items we need at that time.”

The Northern Illinois Food Bank is planning for a reduction in donations in 2023. Sipes said the food bank’s biggest challenge now is providing enough nutritious food to clients. She said their network of food pantries and programs may receive a similar amount of food, but it seems like less when they’re serving more people.

“We are serving more neighbors but they are getting less food than we were able to provide in 2021,” she said. “Although donated food is up slightly compared to last year, we anticipate receiving 5 million fewer pounds of donated food this year than pre-pandemic all while trying to distribute 10% to 15% more food. That means we are investing more in purchased food, three times more than pre-pandemic, at a time when food costs are increasing and supply chain disruption continues to impact long lead times and low availability.”

Frieders said the Sugar Grove community always has been “very generous with donations.” But like everyone, the community also is suffering the effects of higher prices.

“The economy has tightened people’s wallets in what they can give. I can think of a few families who donated holiday meals or goods last year who are now needing our services,” she said.

Volunteers Don Flynn (left) and Mike Chmelik unload donations from Jewel-Osco in Sugar Grove at the Between Friends Food Pantry of Sugar Grove.

The Batavia Interfaith Food Pantry serves residents of Batavia and Batavia Township. Families can shop during open hours or order online for pickup. The Sugar Grove pantry, which serves residents of Kaneland School District 302, is only open for drive-through service on Thursday evenings.

“When people come, they receive canned goods, fresh breads and produce, dairy, deli, personal care products, paper goods and cleaning products,” Pasero said. “Most people leave with a completely full cart of groceries, worth between $400 and $500, which costs us just $45 to provide.”

Between Friends Food Pantry also provides toiletries, pet food and diapers. Frieders said she hopes by the spring that the pantry once again will be open for clients to come in and shop. But for now, they receive a distribution on Thursday nights.

Volunteer Patty Crichton loads donations from Jewel-Osco in Sugar Grove for the Between Friends Food Pantry of Sugar Grove.

“We give out meat, produce when we can, dairy,” she said. “I encourage clients to come to us first, then fill in what they need from the grocery store. It can help save them money at the store that can be put toward rent or gas.”

For more information about volunteer opportunities, making financial donations or how to receive services, visit Batavia Interfaith Food Pantry’s website or Between Friends Food Pantry of Sugar Grove’s website.

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