Food banks face new challenges as holidays approach: rising costs and supply problems

OAKLAND, California (AP) – U.S. food banks, already dealing with increasing demand from families put on the sidelines of the pandemic, now face a new challenge – rising food prices and supply chain problems affecting the nation.

The higher cost and limited availability means some families may get smaller portions or substitutes for staples such as peanut butter, which cost almost double what it did a year ago. As the holidays approach, some food banks worry that they will not have enough fillings and cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“What happens when food prices rise is that food insecurity for those who experience it just gets worse,” said Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Feeding America, a nonprofit organization that coordinates the efforts of more than 200 food banks across the country.

As the holidays approach, some food banks worry that they will not have enough fillings and cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  (AP Photo / Terry Chea)
As the holidays approach, some food banks worry that they will not have enough fillings and cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving and Christmas. (AP Photo / Terry Chea)

Terry Chea via Associated Press

Food banks that expanded to meet unprecedented demand caused by the pandemic will not forever be able to absorb food costs that are two to three times what they used to be, she said.

Supply chain disruptions, lower inventory, and labor shortages have all contributed to increased costs for charities on which tens of thousands of people in the United States depend for nutrition. Donated food is more expensive to move because transportation costs have risen, and bottlenecks at factories and ports make it difficult to get goods of any kind.

If a food bank has to swap out with smaller sizes of canned tuna or make substitutions to stretch their dollars, Fitzgerald said, it’s like adding “insult to injury” to a family faltering with insecurity.

In the prohibitively expensive San Francisco Bay Area, the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland spends an additional $ 60,000 a month on food. Combined with increased demand, it is now deferring $ 1 million a month to distribute 4.5 million pounds (2 million kilograms) of food, said Michael Altfest, Oakland Food Bank’s director of community engagement.

Before the pandemic, it spent a quarter of the money on 2.5 million pounds (1.2 million kilos) of food.

The price of green beans and canned peaches has risen nearly 9% for them, Altfest said; canned tuna and frozen tilapia by more than 6%; and a case of 5-pound frozen chickens for holiday tables has increased 13%. The price of dry oatmeal has risen 17%.

On Wednesday, hundreds of people line up outside a church in eastern Oakland for its weekly lunch. Shiloh Mercy House feeds about 300 families on those days, far less than the 1,100 families it nurtured at the height of the pandemic, said Jason Bautista, the charity leader. But he still sees new people every week.

“And a lot of people just say they can’t afford food,” he said. “I mean, they have money to buy certain things, but it just does not stretch.”

Families can also use a community market Shiloh, which opened in May. Refrigerators contain cartons of milk and eggs, while sacks of hamburger buns and crispy baguettes stand on the shelves.

Oakland resident Sonia Lujan-Perez, 45, picked up chicken, celery, onion bread and potatoes – enough to supplement a Thanksgiving meal for herself, 3-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son. The state of California pays her to take care of her daughter Melanie, who has special needs, but a monthly rent of $ 2,200 and such high costs for milk, citrus, spinach and chicken are not enough.

“It’s wonderful for me because I want to save a lot of money,” she said, adding that the holiday season is tough with Christmas toys for the kids.

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It is unclear to what extent other parallel state aid, including an expanded free school lunch program in California and an increase in benefits for people in the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, will offset rising food prices. An analysis by the think tank Urban Institute in Washington, DC showed that while most households are expected to receive adequate maximum benefits for groceries, a gap still exists in 21 percent of U.S. rural and urban counties.

Bryan Nichols, vice president of sales for Transnational Foods Inc., which supplies to more than 100 food banks in connection with Feeding America, said that canned food from Asia – such as fruit cocktails, pears and tangerines – has been stuck abroad due to lack of shipping container space .

Problems with supply appear to be improving and prices are stabilizing, but he expects costs to remain high after so many people escaped the shipping industry during the pandemic. “An average container coming from Asia before COVID-19 would cost about $ 4,000. Today, the same container is about $ 18,000,” he said.

At the Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, Colorado Springs, CEO Lynne Telford says the cost of a truckload of peanut butter — 40,000 pounds (18,100 kg) – has risen 80% from June 2019 to $ 51,000 in August. Mac and cheese have risen 19% compared to a year ago, and the wholesale price of minced beef has risen 5% in three months. They spend more money on food to compensate for declining donations, and there is less to choose from.

The coming holidays worry her. First, the donation cost of buying a frozen turkey has increased from $ 10 to $ 15 per person. bird.

“The other thing is that we are not getting enough holiday food, like fillings and cranberry sauce. So we have to supplement with other kinds of food, which you know makes us sad, ”said Telford, whose food bank fed more than 200,000 people last year and distributed 25 million pounds (11.3 million kg) of food.

Alameda County Community Food Bank says it is set for Thanksgiving, with cases of canned cranberries and boxes of mashed potatoes among items stacked in its expanded warehouse. Food Resources Director Wilken Louie ordered eight truckloads of frozen 5-pound chickens – equivalent to more than 60,000 birds – to give away for free, as well as half turkeys that can be purchased for the price.

Martha Hasal is grateful for that.

“It’s going to be an expensive Thanksgiving, turkey is not going to cost as it was,” Hasal said as she stocked up on cauliflower and onions on behalf of the Bay Area American Indian Council. “And they do not release turkey. So thank God they release the chicken.”

AP reporters Terence Chea in Oakland and Ashraf Khalil in Washington contributed to this story.

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