Published December 16th, 2020 at 11:00 AM
Some of the more Dickensian aspects of 2020 can be found at local food pantries this holiday season.
The grinding pandemic has ripped loved ones from families, left millions unemployed and fostered fear anytime we leave the house.
For many, it has also left them hungry.
The Community Services League in Blue Springs, Missouri, plans to serve 300 families over the holidays, many of whom are afraid to come in to be fed. It’s a wrenching experience to need help feeding your family, all the while trying not to contract or spread a virus that has killed nearly 300,000 Americans.
“So many families are embarrassed enough,” said Melodie Chrisman, manager of the Community Services League site. “It’s hard enough for them to walk through the door. The tears are usually flowing.”
Food insecurity is on the rise this holiday season, and it’s happening at the same time as the price of our food is rising at a rate not seen in years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, food inflation has increased 3.7% over the past year. For perspective, the 20-year annual average in terms of food inflation was about 2%.
The pandemic has been a driving force behind the increase in inflation.
“There was an additional demand, more people buying more groceries at grocery stores,” said Jayson Lusk, Purdue University agriculture economics department head. “All of that extra demand pulled up prices in grocery stores, and that’s still true today.”
While shortages aren’t nearly as much of a concern as they were in the early stages of the pandemic, Americans are spending 10-15% more at grocery stores than they were in January of 2020.
The other major driver behind the increase in food prices is the disruption in the meat supply chain in the late spring.
In early May, meat plants were processing about 40% fewer cattle and hogs than they were at the same time in 2019. That meant 40% less meat on the market, which caused higher rates of inflation. In June, all meat products saw a 12% to 13% price hike compared to 2019.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Price Forecast predicts meat prices to be up 7% to 8% for the year of 2020. Other notable index price increases include fresh vegetables (2% to 3%), which has been driven by a 7% price increase in lettuce. Fruit prices have decreased, but still the USDA predicts fruit and vegetable prices will be up 0.5% to 1.5% as a whole on the year. Cereal and bakery products are about 3% more expensive than they were in 2019.
Holiday foods also saw a price increase. In a report for Purdue University, Lusk said that turkey prices were up 15% this year from 2019, and 30% from 2018.
Lusk noted that we haven’t seen these kinds of price hikes since 2011, when droughts in the Great Plains caused a strain on ranchers, which reduced inventory and drove prices up. In 2020 the answer, as in so many areas, was the pandemic.
“The fact was that workers in the meatpacking plants contracted COVID,” Lusk said. “They either had to slow down or shut down the plants for a period of time, and so that’s really the driver.”
Prior to the pandemic, food insecurity and hunger numbers were down to levels not seen since before the 2008 recession. Progress was being made to feed people who desperately needed it.
Now with joblessness and evictions looming over citizens’ heads, some are having to decide whether to spend money on rent, their heating bill, or on their next meal.
“It’s a difficult choice of, ‘do I pay the rent so I’m not evicted, or do I not buy food,’ ” said Sarah Biles, director of communications for Harvesters – The Community Food Network.
According to Harvesters, 300,000 people in the region were food insecure prior to the pandemic. That number has since risen to 387,000.
There’s been a surge in the number of children who are food insecure as well. Prior to the pandemic, Harvesters estimated one in seven children in the region were food insecure. Now that number is one in five.
Biles said this is due to students staying home, and not being provided with breakfast and lunch at school. It’s a similar situation that pantries see during the summer when kids are out of school, but extended into the fall and winter months.
“Our pantries are saying that people are coming to their pantries and needing more food for their kids,” Biles said. “They are having to feed them three meals a day, whereas when they’re in school, normally they’re getting free or reduced lunch and breakfast for two meals of the day.”
With more people needing food, demand at pantries has increased.
Harvesters’ food pantries have seen a 40% increase in people coming in for help. They’ve distributed 54 million pounds of food so far this year, which is 12 million pounds more than the same period in 2019.
Not only are pantries seeing an increased flow of traffic, they are also losing volunteers to help them keep up with demand.
Normally, Harvesters sees about 6,000 volunteers a month. Because of social distancing mandates, they’ve been able to field half as many spots for people to help, and Biles says they haven’t even reached that number, due to concerns about the health of volunteers.
Without the ability to do food drives like they have in the past, pantries have had to buy a lot of food, which has made operating costs much higher. According to Biles, Harvesters has had to spend an additional $800,000 to $1 million a month on food.
It’s still unclear what food prices will do in 2021. Coming out of a pandemic, there is a chance income increases. If so, that will push food prices up. If for some reason there was another disruption in the meat supply chain, that also could continue to increase prices.
Lusk doubts this will be the case, though.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, but if you forced me to bet, I would bet that they (food prices) come down to more normal levels,” Lusk said.
Food insecurity on the other hand, is not expected to go back to normal any time soon.
Harvesters has relied on government assistance programs like the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to provide some food. Those programs expire at the end of the year. If they aren’t renewed, Harvesters will have to find out how to replace about 1.5 million pounds of food.
Biles compared the current situation to that of the 2008 recession. It took years for the world to recover from that financial crisis. She expects the pandemic to be a major setback in feeding the country.
“Even if you do get employment back again, you’re just not automatically back out of your debt that you have,” Biles said. “That’s hardship, and to climb out of that is going to take a long time.”
Food pantries are desperately in need of volunteers to help fill all of their shifts. You can also donate non-perishable food items, or you can add a monetary donation to your grocery bill of $1 to $20. According to Biles, every dollar donated helps Harvesters provide three meals.
Coming tomorrow: Americans are wasting more food than ever.
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.