Higher prices for food, gas
squeeze food banks, pantries and clients

A volunteer with Gleaners, one of the largest food banks in the Detroit area, loaded boxes of food into a vehicle during a distribution event in River Rouge, Mich., Oct. 8, 2020. (CNS Photo courtesy of Gleaners Community Food Bank via Detroit Catholic)

By Michael Stechschulte

DETROIT — A trip to the grocery store is giving shoppers sticker shock over staples such as a gallon of milk.

Imagine the pocketbook pain of buying 250,000 gallons.

Southeast Michigan food aid ministries, including food banks and parish-based pantries, are “absolutely” feeling the pinch of inflation as food prices rise at their fastest pace in nearly 40 years, according to those who spoke to Detroit Catholic, the archdiocesan news outlet.

Granted, most aren’t shopping at the local supermarket, but the impact of rising prices is there.

“Inflation is definitely having an effect in terms of our costs,” said Stacy Averill, vice president of community giving and public relations for Detroit-based Gleaners Community Food Bank. “Two of our largest costs as an organization are food and staffing. From the food perspective, we are definitely seeing substantial increases in the cost of items that we purchase and make available through our distribution.”

The U.S. consumer price index, which measures the impact of inflation across a range of categories, rose 7.9% in February, the steepest one-month gain since 1982. Food prices, which are among the most volatile commodities, rose an average of 3.9% in 2021.

So far, ministries such as Gleaners have been able to keep pace with demand for assistance, which remains high two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.

As one of the largest food banks in Metro Detroit, Gleaners purchases food in bulk to distribute to more than 660 soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters and schools. Most of the food it distributes is given away free or at a low service fee.

Because of its wide network, Gleaners is able to purchase food in bulk at discounted prices from local farms, retailers and wholesalers, but those prices have increased dramatically in the past two years, Averill said.

She estimated food costs have risen 10% to 25% compared with pre-pandemic prices. “That’s across the board from food staples like fresh produce, but also things like canned fruits and vegetables, frozen chicken and fresh milk,” she said.

For instance, Averill said, Gleaners projects to spend almost $500,000 more this year on fresh milk, and is already spending more than it budgeted for produce this fiscal year.

When the pandemic began, food banks, shelters and soup kitchens received an influx of federal, state and private aid in the form of monetary donations, grants and direct food donations. However, as the health crisis has waned much of that initial burst of support has dried up, Averill said, causing nonprofits to rely more heavily on their own budgets to continue meeting an elevated demand for food.

Even organizations that are more insulated from direct food price increases, such as Oak Park, Michigan-based Forgotten Harvest, are feeling the inflation’s impact in other ways.

While Forgotten Harvest provide food free of charge to local pantries and soup kitchens, its organizational model relies on rescuing and redistributing perishable food from local grocers, restaurants and farms that otherwise would go to waste.

Although Forgotten Harvest receives food for free, costs are involved, especially for fuel, said Christopher Ivey, director of marketing and communications for Forgotten Harvest.

“It’s not a food cost issue so much as it’s just the transportation costs of getting the food to us,” Ivey said. “And then obviously, like everyone else, we’re running a bit short staffed. So on top of that, we’ve had to pay overtime. When our drivers are out sick, we have to get a temporary driver, so then we incur costs there.”

During the pandemic, many large corporations and organizations that would normally send volunteers to help pack, organize, sort and distribute food pulled back because of safety concerns, Averill said, leaving nonprofits scrambling to fill orders and leaning on staff — and in some cases overtime — to fill the void.

While both organizations have protocols to ensure volunteers’ safety, and some volunteers have begun to return, both Ivey and Averill said their organizations’ biggest needs are manpower and monetary donations.

For direct-service food pantries and soup kitchens, the need remains high. While the demand for food isn’t as extreme as at the start of the pandemic, it’s still higher than before the coronavirus arrived — likely as a direct or indirect result of inflation.

Adam Perry, director of the Center for the Works of Mercy in Detroit, which is run by Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, said the center’s food pantry has experienced an uptick in clients since opening last year.

“When people go to the grocery store, their food stamps don’t go as far because grocery costs are higher,” Perry said. “The unfortunate part of inflation for us is that we actually need to serve more people, not less.”

Perry said his program leverages Gleaners’ bulk purchasing power to buy food at a discounted rate, and so far hasn’t experienced higher prices — a factor Perry attributed to Gleaners’ resolve to absorb, rather than pass along, much of the increased costs to its partners.

“They’re doing a great job trying to avoid pushing that cost to the distributors. We receive grants (to purchase food) through organizations like the United Way, but we’re on a budget through those grants,” Perry said.

Should that cost increase, Perry said, Catholic Charities would likely turn to parishes and Catholic schools — which already have been generous with food and clothing drives — to fill any gaps.

“Parishes have been excellent in asking us, ‘What do you need? How can we do an extra drive this year?’ ” Perry said.

“I think that’s created more of a partnership and a synergy between the parishes and the organizations that are helping. Those things make a big impact, and we appreciate them.”

Catholic News Service
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