Up at the Caring for Friends loading dock in Northeast Philly, the Rev. Abigail Mordi and her volunteers from Omega Fire Ministries rolled up in a minivan to cheerfully inspect melons and peppers, cabbages and cantaloupes, and load them up for their weekly Friday produce sharing at the church near SEPTA’s Fox Chase station.
“It’s not just for our church members,” Mordi said. “We have open house for all the members of the community.”
But this year, the nonprofit supplying the church food has a new threat in its fight against hunger: Inflation.
For one thing, “‘Free’ food isn’t free,” noted Vince Schiavone, a retired tech executive and investor whose late mother started the Caring for Friends food bank and senior meals delivery program more than 40 years ago.
“We can get donated tractor trailers of potatoes in Maine,” said Schiavone, who is chair and CEO, “but the cost to bring them here is now $4,000,” almost double the level of two years ago, “and we can’t afford it” without help from donors.
Meat and other protein prices shot up an average of 12% through January, while produce prices rose roughly half as much. Both are quadruple the average rate of inflation for each over the Last 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Meanwhile, food prices shot up 7.9% for the 12 months through February, the biggest 12-month hike since July 1981, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And prices are expected to climb further as the cost of diesel fuel keeps rising because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions that Western countries have slapped on the big oil producer. Diesel exceeded an average $5.30 a gallon in Pennsylvania last week, the highest since 2008, even accounting for inflation, according to the American Automobile Association.
Those transportation increases leave food banks with few options. “We can’t raise prices, because we don’t charge people,” Schiavone said. “So we have to become more efficient, and raise more funds.”
George Matysik, executive director at Share Food Program, based at 29th and West Hunting Park Avenue, cited other factors. He welcomes the increase in wages that many low-paid workers have received. “As a nonprofit fighting poverty, that means people are earning more,” he said. “But the cost of everything else is going up, too, and food banks are among the groups most affected.”
The $1.6 million that his agency collected and spent on dry foods at the start of the pandemic in 2020 bought about 2.5 million pounds of rice and beans and grains — but might buy only about 1.5 million pounds today, due to inflation, Matysik said.
And equipment, as well as labor, is hard to find. New tractor-trailers have more than a two-year waiting list, he said.
So last week Share Food, the region’s largest food charity, picked up an older truck, the 12th in its fleet, to do pick-ups that donors can no longer easily provide. “We had to go all the way to El Paso, Texas, to find one, and that cost an extra $4,000 to drive it up here,” said Matysik.
Despite strong reported job growth across the U.S., demand for free food is up, said Caring’s Schiavone. More people are still home taking care of kids or parents, as they have since the start of the pandemic.
“Prices are higher,” so Caring for Friends needs more from its donors, including Acme and Clemens, Dietz & Watson lunchmeats and cheeses from its plant and warehouse on Tacony Street, Flowers Food (maker of Tastykake and Wonder Bread) at its plants in South Philly and Oxford, Chester County, and other well-known local food companies.
Caring for Friends ranks itself as the region’s largest homebound free senior meals program outside the government. It also ranks third among area food agencies “by pounds distributed” after No. 1 Share and No. 2 Philabundance.
Caring’s operations grew dramatically during the pandemic, vaulting from 400,000 pounds of food delivered in 2019 to 12 million pounds in 2021. Caring added refrigerated trailers at a warehouse when local food banks had a tough time getting supplies from their usual donors, largely restaurants that shut or cut back.
The group had a 2021 operating budget of $3 million when its 20 full-time staff moved $31 million worth of food. It’s looking for more paid staff and volunteer drivers.
Caring’s model is to distribute donated food through 200 agencies and schools. It also relies on 10,000 volunteers who cook in its commercial kitchen on Townsend Road or in their own kitchens, and pack snacks and half a million yearly hot meals for delivery to homes.
Its kitchen manager, Michael Coleman, oversees such groups as the volunteer cooks who prepare hot soup every Saturday for the crowds who sleep along Kensington Avenue near some of the city’s best-known illegal drug markets.
“We get a lot of students from the Philadelphia School District, who want to be chefs,” Coleman said. “It’s how I started, giving to the community and learning these skills.”
In the current climate, “supply chain problems,” such as the driver shortage, make it harder to get food delivered when it’s available, Schiavone added.
This has obliged Caring for Friends, and other charities with robust donor networks, to get more trucks, refrigerated trailers, and drivers.
“We send a truck every morning at 6 a.m. to the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market,” he added. “T.M. Kovacevich and Pinto Brothers give us pallets of produce every day.”
Another source of aid is the West Philly-based charity Sharing Excess, with its smartphone-wielding volunteers and their extensive local databases that help match givers and gifts to limit spoilage.
Still, Inflation hits food supply from unexpected angles. Trays that cost Schiavone’s food bank 20 cents in February 2020 were priced by his Philadelphia distributor at 34 cents each a year later.
“As many trays as we use, the cost went from $100,000 a year to $170,000,” Schiavone said.
He switched distributors. Following the advice of a longtime volunteer, he phoned June Girardetti, of Imperial Dade Co., a food packaging distributor in Jersey City. She put her purchasing agents to work in metro New York until they found a supplier able to deliver a modified tray at 22 cents, much closer to the old price.
Even warehouse space has lately gotten expensive, too, said Schiavone. He’s paying $10 a square foot for a location in Essington, Delaware County, which is more than some of the older office spaces listed nearby on the Loopnet.com lease marketing service.
That’s a historic switch, when warehouses start costing as much as offices.