Difficult families lining up for social benefits they never thought they would need. Food supplies are dwindling. Exhausted volunteers scramble to meet the need.
It sounds like it could be March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the nation, causing a sudden spike in unemployment. But it’s happening now.
“This is now going to be an even bigger event than we saw during the pandemic,” said Fred Wasiak, the president of the South Jersey Food Bank.
Leaders at food banks and pantries across New Jersey told NJ Advance Media that what they saw this summer exceeded the need they saw during the first pandemic spring, with food insecurity levels equating to pandemic highs, data from the U.S. shows Census.
A combination of rising inflation, the end of federal pandemic relief programs and reduced donations are behind the tension, said Adele LaTourette, senior policy director at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.
“It’s this unique set of circumstances that describes really difficult circumstances for a huge number of people.” said La Tourette.
The Community Food Bank pantry in Egg Harbor Township has seen a 288% increase in demand from the previous year, and other pantries in the network have a 55% increase in demand weeks earlier this year, a CFBNJ spokeswoman said. .
According to the Household Pulse survey, more than 14% of households surveyed by the US Census Bureau said they were experiencing food insecurity at the end of June. That number meets the food insecurity level of mid-January 2021 and is two percentage points higher than at the end of April 2020.
The US Census Household Pulse survey was created at the dawn of the health emergency as a way to quickly gather and release information about the social and economic impact of the pandemic on the average American family, the Census Bureau says. Questions include topics such as food supply, housing security, and mental health.
If you have trouble seeing the graph, click here
A wave of federal funding and an outpouring of public support helped food pantries meet growing demand in the spring of 2020, said Carolyn Lake, the executive director of the Interfaith Food Pantry Network in Morristown.
But that support has waned. Even organizations that continue to provide steady support have sent smaller or fewer donations, she said.
“From a donor’s point of view, it’s over. The crisis is over,” Lake said. “But it hasn’t changed and we’re still in a pandemic.”
“We had people during the pandemic who received a $1,200 incentive check knocking on the door and saying, look, I don’t need this, please help our fellow neighbors,” Wasiak.
And food is just significantly more expensive now. The national consumer price index, a measure of how much more expensive consumer goods are, rose 18% between September 2019 and July 2022, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows.
“It’s (spent) on produce, milk and eggs,” Lake said. She approached a dietitian who works at the pantry about the possibility of eliminating eggs, but decided that a healthy, easy choice was more important than cutting the budget.
Eggs are up 60% in price since September 2019, while milk is up 27% and fresh fruits and vegetables are up 13%.
Inflation is a universal experience, Lake said. Those who need food now need more of it, and those who want to donate cannot afford to donate that much.
“Inflation really knocks people who were on the brink over the edge because their dollars don’t go as far as they do in the supermarket,” Lake said.
The rise in food costs is also making it harder for pantries to keep their shelves stocked. The Interfaith Food Pantry Network doubled their distribution amounts in the first six months of 2022 compared to the same period in 2019, but has spent significantly more money doing so.
By the end of July, the pantry had spent 75% of its annual budget, Lake said.
Despite these challenges, those on the front lines of the fight against food insecurity say they will continue to provide healthy choices to those who need it most.
“One person was embarrassed to come to the food bank for the first time, but they did it for their children,” Wasiak said of a recent customer. “We don’t want people to feel ashamed. We want people to have dignity and we are here to help.”
Here are some ways you can help:
Interfaith Food Pantry Network: Food can be dropped off at the warehouse at 2 Executive Drive in Morris Plains, Monday through Thursday from 9:30 AM – 4:30 PM. Information about volunteering or donating cash can be found online.
South Jersey Food Bank: You can sign up for a volunteer service, start a fundraiser, or donate money right away. Find more information on their website.
Community Food Bank of New Jersey: Get information about volunteering, donating money, organizing a food campaign, or other ways to get involved online.
Rutgers against hunger: Would you like to support a food bank or pantry near you? Find links to organizations in your province through this online database.
Thank you for trusting us to deliver the journalism you can rely on. Please consider supporting NJ.com with a subscription.
Katie Kausch can be reached at: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @Katie Kaush.