Feeding the hungry: As costs spiral up for many essentials, food pantries see spike in demand

EASTHAMPTON — Need evidence that the spiraling cost of essentials — from food to gas and more — is taking a toll on families in the region? It’s right there in the parking lot of the Easthampton Community Center food pantry, where rental pods are stacked with food waiting for those in need.

The pods became necessary not too long ago because the pantry ran out of room inside the community center’s Clark Street building, where shelves stocked with food and other goods line the walls from floor to ceiling.

“Since COVID we have almost tripled in the amount of families we are seeing,” said Easthampton Community Center Executive Director Robin Bialecki, noting a spike in the number of seniors and others on fixed income who pick up food each week.

Bialecki, who starts each day at 5 a.m. picking up leftovers from local retailers, said some 3,000 families visit the center each week for food, up from the roughly 1,000 families who turned to the center for help before the pandemic.

Other food pantries are also giving out more food today than in recent months. The Amherst Survival Center reports an increase in visitors of 7-15% this March compared to six months ago, while the Northampton Survival Center said it has had a 74% increase in its food distributions since the beginning of the pandemic, though the exact number of visitors is harder to track.

And just this week, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts — which provides a majority of the food for the 173 local food pantries, meal sites and shelters in the four-county region of western Massachusetts — warned that it is bracing for an increase in demand for food assistance now that most federal benefits during the pandemic have already expired or are about to run out.

“Coupled with rising inflation of food, gasoline and other prices, people are really being hit from all sides right now,” the Food Bank said in a statement Tuesday.

The February consumer price index, which measures changes in the cost of essentials such as food, gas and heat, rose by 7.9% over the past 12 months — the largest inflation surge in 40 years. Some of the spike is attributed to the pandemic and supply chain issues, along with uncertainty surrounding Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“All of those economic strains, and general cost of goods, is absolutely impacting people’s food security,” said Lev Ben-Ezra, executive director of the Amherst Survival Center. “Your household budget is your household budget,” he said, and there is no way of getting around that.

For many families, that budget is noticeably smaller because of the loss of pandemic benefits, which is leading the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts to prepare for demand to skyrocket like it did in the first year of the pandemic, before those benefits were put into place.

In 2020, the network of food pantries in the region distributed 24% more healthy food than the year before the pandemic, for a record high of 13.3 million meals. That demand came from an 18% jump in individuals seeking food assistance, an average of 110,000 visitors every month.

In the second year of the pandemic, after the government benefits kicked in, the Food Bank said the network experienced a 1% increase in individuals seeking food assistance compared to the same nine-month period before the pandemic.

“The reason for this was the massive infusion of federal benefits during the pandemic, which had the desired effect of reducing food insecurity,” the Food Bank said.

Benefits also included universal free school meals, child tax credits, stimulus payments, unemployment benefits, and SNAP emergency allotments and benefit increases.

Ben-Ezra of the Amherst Survival Center said many of the center’s recent visitors are first-time customers, while others who used to come in periodically are becoming regulars.

Meanwhile, the Northampton Survival Center reports a 74% increase in its food distributions since the beginning of the pandemic, said Executive Director Heidi Nortonsmith. Some of that increase can be attributed to the center’s implementation of new ways to get food into people’s hands during the pandemic, including drive-thrus, curbside pickup and deliveries.

“In broad strokes, our number of clients served has both surged and fluctuated widely during the pandemic,” Nortonsmith said.

To add to the struggle, pantry leaders, like the clients they serve, are struggling to pay for and transport the goods they distribute to those in need.

Nortonsmith said that supply chain issues caused by the pandemic have taken a toll on the center’s purchasing power. Put simply, a dollar doesn’t go as far.

Lillian Baulding, communications and engagement officer at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, says the supply chain problem is one of the main issues the organization now faces.

“Due to the pandemic and other world events, shipments scheduled for November are just coming in now,” Baulding said.

Additionally, a lack of storage space at its Hatfield headquarters has forced the Food Bank to decline more than 1 million pounds of food donations over the last three-plus years. That’s why the organization purchased vacant property in late 2020 at the Chicopee River Business Park to build a new food distribution center and headquarters. The new facility will be twice the size of its current facility. Construction is expected to begin in May, with a move-in date set for the summer of 2023.

Other donors

In addition to the Food Bank, food pantries throughout the region stock their shelves with goods from local retailers including Stop and Shop, Big Y and River Valley Market, as well as from local farms and churches.

“The community keeps us in mind,” Nortonsmith said, explaining that businesses and locals will either buy food to donate or donate necessities such as toothbrushes.

Ben-Ezra emphasizes the extensive help from local retailers in the area, along with donations from the “incredible abundance of local farms.”

“Recently we received half a pallet from Trader Joe’s, and we keep the good oranges and compost the oranges that cannot be eaten,” Ben-Ezra said.

Back at the Easthampton Community Center, where distribution times have been lengthened to meet the demand, Bialecki is known to keep a fridge stocked with sandwiches and other food that people can get throughout the week.

“It’s hard to ask for help,” but it doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t, Bialecki said.

For the Gazette
Published: 4/8/2022 7:07:47 PM