How food banks are dealing with rising prices, lower donations and more need
One brisk but sunny morning in December, a group of about 15 adults hustled to load boxes of vegetables, canned soup and half-gallons of milk into the trunks of their cars, which they'd parked in the lot of a community center in Washington, D.C.
"It's easy now, because most of us are working from home," said Shami Elstein, one of the volunteers, who had blocked out two hours of his Friday in advance.
They were stay-at-home parents — but also attorneys, professors and federal employees — volunteering with DC Food Project, a local nonprofit that helps supply K-12 students with snacks during the day and their families with fresh produce and dried goods ahead of long weekends and breaks.
To understand what it's like to live in the U.S. economy right now, look to nonprofits like DC Food Project that rely on donations and volunteers to provide people with the most basic human necessity, food.
Inflation has made it harder for people to give money, and donations aren't going as far. For some organizations, that's meant cutting back on what they provide, just as more people, unable to cover the rising prices of groceries, turn to them for help.
One bright spot is that in the post-pandemic work world, people have more flexibility in their schedules to volunteer. But, like countless businesses across the country, some food banks are understaffed.
Harder for a lot of people to donate
"During Covid, everyone was hoping and wanting to help if they could," said said Lucie Leblois, 44, one of the food project's founders.
Leblois, along with co-founders Alysa MacClellan and Katie DeGroft, started the organization in 2018 and saw it grow quickly during the pandemic.
"We were able to raise money as fast as we were spending it."
This year, fundraising has been tough.
"It's harder for a lot of people, even those who used to donate," said Leblois.
Grocery prices have gone way up because of inflation, and access to food has gotten harder. Egg prices have risen nearly 50% this year, government data shows.
"As a nonprofit, we faced that challenge, but we also know that the families we're supporting are doubly facing that challenge," she said.
That Friday, their team of volunteers planned to drop off food for more than 600 families and seniors around the city.
Burning out staff, running out of food
Smaller food banks are also dealing with high demand and rising food prices — and burnt out staff.
CAPI USA, a Brooklyn Center, Minnesota-based nonprofit originally called the Center for Asian and Pacific Islanders now focused on serving immigrants and refugees, is one of them.
CAPI, which operates a food shelf, is one of the state's only culturally-specific food providers. They focus on Asian, African and Latinx food groups, said Ekta Prakash, the CEO.
"Those foods are expensive," said Prakash, who makes it a mission to purchase fresh produce for CAPI clients. "It's easy to say you can run a food shelf with canned food, but it's not easy to do."
CAPI typically spends $50,000 per year for 400 lbs of food, said Prakash. But this year, she said they've spent nearly $100,000 for roughly the same amount of food, and they're struggling to meet rising demand.
"By Thursday, there is no food," she said.
They've had to reduce the hours of their food shelf, closing on Friday through the weekend.
Plus, while people are still donating food, financial giving by individuals and corporations has slowed, said Prakash. They need money to pay the cost of labor.
"Our staff are getting more burned out," Prakash said.
Need is almost as high as the worst of the pandemic
This is probably the most challenging holiday season that Second Harvest of Silicon Valley has experienced yet, said Leslie Bacho, CEO of the regional food bank.
"The need we're seeing in the community is reaching close to the level that we saw at the height of the pandemic," she said.
Since the surge in demand during the pandemic was tied to job losses, it felt temporary, she said. It's been a different story with inflation, which has pummeled the country for a year now.
"Everyone is really strained," said Bacho. "Both financially, because our network is being hit hard, and also emotionally, just from being in this emergency-response mode."
To contend with the rising price of milk - up nearly 15% over the year - the food bank now gives each family a half gallon of it per box. It used to give a full gallon.
"I try to keep going out to our distribution sites just to remind myself why we are doing this work," said Bacho, who enjoys connecting with volunteers and donors.
"I've tried to remind myself of all the joy that's there as we're all busily working away."
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