Local food pantries strained by rising costs, increased need

WESTERN MASS. – It isn’t only households that are affected by the economic downturn and increased cost of food and other necessities. Charitable organizations are also feeling the pinch.

Food pantries exist to serve most communities in Hampden and Hampshire counties, sharing stocks of food with those who are simply in need of one less grocery bill to pay. As the price of food increases month to month, food pantries have already seen the effects in more ways than one.

The Parish Cupboard, serving Agawam and West Springfield, is one of many local food pantries facing an increased demand from people in need of food assistance. Executive Director Bob Fastie said that the pantry on Main Street in West Springfield has seen more clients coming in for daily free lunches, and new families coming in for monthly food allotments.

Fastie said donations of food have been slower than normal in June, likely a result of the increasing prices and donors having just a little less food to spare. Despite the slowdown in donations, Fastie said a recent food drive has given them some wiggle room for at least the time being.

“Last month the postal service had a food drive and brought in 4 tons of food for us,” said Fastie. “We are not panicking.”

He said during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, there was actually an increase in the number of food and cash donations, and that some people donated their entire stimulus checks to the Parish Cupboard.

But Fastie said what many food pantry volunteers have also said, that there is a noticeable increase in clients who would otherwise never have thought to use a food pantry in a normal economy.

“We have more people who are working and just need extra food,” said Fastie.

A similar story was told at the Huntington Food Pantry. Administrator Laura Gavioli said that there are people coming in for food assistance that they haven’t seen in at least a year. She said her pantry serves about 35 families every week in Huntington and neighboring Hilltowns. Even a small increase in clients, Gavioli said, is a big deal.

“Us increasing by one or two families a week is substantial,” said Gavioli.

The Huntington Food Pantry relies largely on donations from bigger area stores like Stop & Shop, Walmart, Big Y and Cumberland Farms. As with food, gas prices have risen substantially in just a few months, which Gavioli said has significantly impacted the cost of physically getting the food to the pantry.

In some cases, she said, she’s seen clients who never thought they’d need help.

“Some people have been hesitant, and you can tell when it is their first time,” said Gavioli. “Others who used our food pantry and were back on their feet and thought they were fine are coming back again.”

At the Northampton Survival Center, the food prices and ongoing disruptions to the supply chain have resulted in difficulty acquiring certain food goods. Development Director Danielle Brown said they will make sure their clients are fed no matter the price of food, but that there has been little room for the organization to pick and choose everything they get.

As is the case at other pantries, the economic situation is bringing some people to the Northampton Survival Center for the first time.

“We are hearing from people for the first time who might not have seen themselves needing us before,” said Brown. “There are more people who are just so much closer to the edge than they were before.”

Brown said the Northampton Survival Center gets a lot of its food stock from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, which sources from local farms and supermarkets for donations. The food bank itself, Brown said, is facing the same supply chain issues as everyone else. She said the survival center is looking into soon placing bigger orders from food wholesalers for shelf-stable goods.

“We are trying to do everything we can to shield our clients from food insecurity. We may not be able to get some of the same brands as before, but we will always get food,” said Brown.

At the Westfield Food Pantry, Executive Director Rebecca Hart said that their client numbers have “sharply increased.”

“Inflation, gas prices and now the lack of pandemic assistance has brought many people back to us,” said Hart.

The Westfield Food Pantry raises money, in part, through a food truck, and recently received a state budget earmark to help staff it. The pantry has only been in its School Street downtown location for a few months, and Hart said they have served a lot of working people who hadn’t needed food assistance in the past.

Our Community Food Pantry in Southwick reported a decline in people needing food assistance in 2020 and 2021, but that trend has reversed.

The pantry’s operations manager, Sally Munson, said the decline was in part because many clients received coronavirus pandemic-related economic relief. But now that the federally funded assistance is gone and food prices are rising, more clients are returning.

“We pretty much give out 10,000 pounds of food a month, and that is increasing, and the costs are going through the roof,” said Munson.

The Reminder | June 27, 2022 |  Peter Currier
Source: https://www.thereminder.com/features/page2feature/local-food-pantries-strained-by-rising-costs-incre/