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Inflation has more Americans counting on food banks to eat

Report shows inflation up 5.8% in 2021
Inflation grew last year to highest rates since 1982 06:32

As the cost of nearly everything surges, more Americans are turning to food banks to eat. And as hunger-relief organizations face long lines of folks in need, the nonprofit groups are having to pay more for food to supplement donations. 

From hurricane-ravaged Louisiana to the scenic coastal views of California's affluent Orange County, the fastest price inflation in nearly four decades is making pretty much everything people buy more expensive, and food is no exception. 

Some are able to pay mortgages, rents and other fixed costs but fall short when it comes to putting food on the table. 

"Inflation impacts families on a fixed budget," Claudia Keller, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, told CBS MoneyWatch. "For a family, the most fungible part of your budget, the part you can cut back on, is food," Keller said. 

Pop-up food distribution run by Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County in Anaheim, California.  Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County

Families squeezed by higher housing and fuel costs have less — or in some cases nothing — to spend at the grocery store, where prices are 6.3% higher than they were a year ago, according to the latest inflation data.

"People who had gotten out of the line are now coming back in," said Mike Manning, president and CEO of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, which serves an 11-parish area in Louisiana. Rising gas prices make getting to jobs more of a financial burden, especially for the working poor, he noted. "It's affecting their ability to put food on the table," Manning said. 

Inflation reduces the purchasing power of everyone, but it is hardest on the poor and middle class, who spend a bigger share of their income on food and other necessities, a reality being touted by the GOP ahead of midterm elections. 

Rapid price hikes in low-cost goods sold by Amazon, Wal-Mart and Dollar General are "disproportionately hurting lower-income Americans," Jackie Benson, an economist who works for Republicans on the Joint Economic Committee, noted in a recent analysis.  

The Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., said it can't quantify how much increased demand stems from inflation, "largely because we continue to see such an increase in demand overall due to the pandemic's economic impacts," a spokesperson emailed. "We are, however, seeing more demand for specific items from our nonprofit partners (who we supply with food), namely animal protein — chicken, beef, etc. — because it has become so much more expensive." 

In Louisiana, Manning's organization is still helping people in the wake of 2021's Hurricane Ida, which disrupted life in much of its service area. "We're having to purchase the donated food we're not receiving," said Manning. The area is largely devoid of farms and poultry operations that frequently donate to community relief groups. "We're much more dependent on retail donations than a lot of food banks across the country," he explained. 

Food pantries were already facing greater need due to COVID-19, with the pandemic also reducing the number of volunteers that help pick up, sort and distribute products — and in Keller's case, those who provide labor at its 45-acre produce farm.  

Volunteers on farm in Irvine, California, in fall 2021. Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County

Further, "the rising cost of food has impacted our bottom line," said Keller of her Orange County nonprofit, which, in addition to soliciting donations from food producers and retailers, also buys food from wholesalers to distribute throughout the county. "Compounding that is our commitment to provide eggs, milk and protein, which are seeing some of the greatest impact from inflation," she added. 

The Laguna Food Pantry purchases milk, produce and occasionally meat to supplement deliveries from Second Harvest, and its volunteers pick up donated food from 16 local grocery stores. The pantry orders 800 gallons of milk weekly from a wholesaler, with those per gallon prices rising 16 cents since January and 40 cents since October, according to its executive director, Anne Belyea.

The pantry is also seeing increased need. "It used to be minimum-wage workers struggling with their several part-time jobs to make ends meet, now it's truly from all walks of life," Belyea said. 

In recent days, that's included two florists who ran thriving small businesses prior to the pandemic, but have now found themselves in line for food after running through their savings, Belyea said. Another looking for help: a laid-off medical writer "down to pasta, a can of beans and some cheese in the refrigerator, but not as concerned about herself as her dog," she said. "We don't normally receive pet food in our grocery rescue, but a 50-pound bag of dog food arrived the day before she came in."  

Pantry volunteers sort and distribute boxes of food to lines of mostly motorists five days a week. Some aid recipients walk, bicycle or take the bus to get food. "We see a lot of neighbors pick up for one another," Belyea said. 

Laguna Food Pantry drive-thru distributions in May 2020. Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County

Before the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Laguna pantry offered free food in "this charming little grocery-store type setting," catering to roughly 80 to 100 people a week, according to Belyea. The outfit transformed to a drive-through as a safety measure when COVID-19 hit, a model that's also helped the pantry keep up with demand, which now numbers about 150 "shoppers" a day, she added.

In 2019, the Laguna pantry has about 23,000 grocery pickups, with the number rising to more than 40,000 in 2020 and 43,000 last year. 

"COVID put many more people into our food lines, many who'd never been in a food line before," Keller said. "As we come back, there's a mix of people still in precarious situations." 

Still, turning to a food pantry can be an embarrassing and humbling experience that many avoid until desperate. 

"Some are ashamed of being in the situation," said Manning, who notes hesitancy among clients to be interviewed by his group or appear in news stories. "They don't want friends to know." 

"We hear over and over, people who donated their time, donated their money, and now they're in that line. People have said, 'I've driven by, I've driven by, and I couldn't stop. It's because of of my children that I finally did,' " Belyea said. 

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