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Inflation, supply-chain disruptions are hurting Philly food banks and low-income people

"The cost of everything has gone up wildly, whether it’s food, transportation, labor — you name it.”

Pallets of food sit in the sunlight during a Thanksgiving food distribution at Martha’s Choice Marketplace of Catholic Social Services in Norristown.
Pallets of food sit in the sunlight during a Thanksgiving food distribution at Martha’s Choice Marketplace of Catholic Social Services in Norristown.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Increases in food costs, coupled with disruptions in the food supply chain, are hitting low-income people hard as the holiday season begins.

Already living lives of deprivation, people in poverty are finding themselves being squeezed in new ways.

“Higher food prices and supply-chain disruptions are a problem for everyone,” said Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy for the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) in Washington, D.C., the largest anti-hunger lobby in America. “But they’re a particular problem for people who live in food deserts,” forced to shop in corner stores.

“They were always paying more for less, and now they’re paying even more for even less.”

Such people turn to food pantries for sustenance. That puts a strain on the pantries, which rely on food banks to supply them.

The food banks, in turn, are continuing to feel a crunch themselves from those same high food prices and supply-chain problems.

“From last November until now, we’re seeing the same rate of need because of COVID,” said George Matysik, executive director of Share Food Program, the largest food bank in the Philadelphia region. “But recently the cost of everything has gone up wildly, whether it’s food, transportation, labor — you name it.”

At the same time, he added, food banks have lost some support from the federal government, including specifically Farmers to Families food boxes, which were discontinued in May in favor of increased funding for food stamps.

“The pandemic’s economic impact is still with us, but resources are not,” Matysik concluded. “We continue to serve one million people a month, however we don’t have the crucial emergency assistance we had last year.”

Loree Jones, chief executive officer of Philabundance, which, along with Share, supplies most of the approximately 900 food pantries in the Philadelphia area, said her agency also is spending much more money on food.

Philabundance has gone from budgeting $120,000 a month for food acquisition in fiscal year 2020 to $850,000 a month in fiscal year 2021, Jones said. And it’s budgeting $1.6 million a month for fiscal year 2022. The agency is funded by donations from foundations, corporations, and individuals, as well as by Feeding America, the nationwide charitable food organization to which Philabundance belongs.

“We’re still operating in the challenging time of COVID, when people are still losing jobs and need food.”

And during Thanksgiving, she said, the desire to put food on the table becomes even more of an imperative.

That’s the problem facing Kelly Larkin.

With the holiday approaching, Larkin, 42, of Levittown, has been eyeing supermarket turkeys, then turning away, disconsolate that they are too pricey for her pandemic-squeezed budget.

“It wasn’t in the numbers,” said Larkin, a mother of three who was laid off from a job in the financial-services industry because of COVID-19. “Food prices are increasing exponentially. Meanwhile, my 15-year-old is eating me out of house and home. I dread buying a gallon of milk. I have to weigh it against paying WiFi or Peco.

“You have a good cry in the shower, then try to move on.”

Corn cans

What’s happening with food across America is somewhat complex, experts say.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains that the supply of food in the United States has not diminished.

But, those who feed people in need say, other factors have come into play.

First of all, inflation has increased food prices. The USDA says food cost is up 5%, but Jones said it’s gone as high as 15% (Matysik of Share says 30%), and in some cases, foods have doubled and even tripled in price within the last year, according to economists.

Beyond that, pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions have played havoc with food, often in indirect ways.

Economists say that pandemic lockdowns last year slowed consumer demand. As a result, manufacturers shut down, obviating the need for oceangoing ships to transport supplies. In recent months, however, economies restarted, but the shipping industry hasn’t yet caught up with increased demand. That’s why you’ll see so many ships waiting to dock and unload their cargo.

The ships are not necessarily late in bringing a food commodity like corn, for example, but rather the cans in which they’re sold.

“In many cases, it’s the packaging the food is supposed to come in that is stuck in containers on ships,” said Fred Wasiak, president and CEO of the Food Bank of South Jersey, which serves more than 200 pantries in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties. He reported that the cost of acquisition and distribution of food at his agency shot up from more than $1 million in 2019 to more than $6 million thus far this year.

“Overall, food staples are harder to find,” Wasiak said. “If we want corn, we may get peas instead.”

Similarly, according to one report from the National Pork Producers Council, pork has been difficult to get in some places, not because the meat is scarce, but because the Styrofoam trays on which it’s packaged are.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that the meatpacking industry, hit hard by COVID-19, is reeling from a lack of workers and truckers. At least one company is trying to lure employees by offering Apple watches. In most cases, animals are being slaughtered, but there aren’t enough employees to bone, trim, and cure, hindering availability of certain meats.

‘No particular pattern’

Once the ships reach port, the headaches aren’t over.

Because of COVID-19 and related difficulties, trucking companies are losing drivers, warehouses are losing workers, and the national average price of gas to transport food has risen to $3.41 a gallon, an increase of $1.29 a gallon over 2020, according to AAA.

All that cuts into food bank budgets. Beyond that, said Patrick Walsh, director of programs at Martha’s Choice Marketplace of Catholic Social Services, a food pantry in Norristown, “certain things are just not available.” He added, “There’s no particular pattern to what doesn’t come in. It’s all on a rotating basis. But we often don’t see super-basic things like corn and sweet potatoes.”

More problems lay ahead, according to Ken Ross, who runs the Honey Brook food pantry in Chester County.

“Everything is delayed and back-ordered, and so much pricier,” he said. “You’re having a lot of variables going the wrong way: more demand, at least at our place; fewer supplies; and government food boxes being over.

“We’re on the cusp of seeing difficulty in getting more food replenished. Meat and dairy may become more difficult because of supply-chain problems, and that creates a challenge because demand through December will be high.”

While times are tough, however, there are some bright spots, said Kelly Larkin. After abandoning the notion of being able to afford a turkey, she heard that Philabundance had teamed up with Acme Markets to give them away.

She showed up at her local store and was handed a 25-pounder, along with a bag of potatoes.

“I don’t think most people understand the choices low-income people have to make at the checkout counters,” she said. “But that day, I was able to get my turkey.

“It meant a lot to me. It saved my Thanksgiving.”