Food pantries seeing increased need after COVID-era assistance ends
NORTHERN MICHIGAN — During the COVID-19 pandemic, resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) gave recipients additional benefits to help feed themselves and their families during a difficult time.
Now, three years after the first lockdown, those COVID-era benefits are coming to an end, leaving many in a worse situation than before.
According to Feeding America, 33 percent of Michigan households receiving SNAP benefits have children. Recipients nationwide stopped receiving the extra allotment at the beginning of March, although they continue to receive the same benefits they had before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as inflation has driven up the cost of food, those benefits don’t go as far in a grocery store now as they did in the 2010s, leaving many to turn to local food pantries for what they need.
“So these pandemic-era benefits, which are supplemental, that came into effect at the start of COVID and the public health emergency, have been really helping low income households put food on the table,” said David Ortega, associate professor at Michigan State University and food economist.
“Prices are rising at the grocery store at a rate that we haven't seen in over 40 years, so that's really affecting overall consumer behavior and how they shop for food.”
For food-insecure families and individuals, one option is to get a portion of or all of their food from local pantries in order to use the money they earn on other necessary expenses.
“As of March 1, (the federal government) discontinued the extra allotment,” Executive Director of The Manna Food Project Carrie Klingelsmith said. “People were used to getting those extra funds every month and now that has been discontinued, it's a significant decrease that people have had in the last few weeks now and so our lines have definitely been increasing.”
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Manna, which serves Emmet, Charlevoix and Antrim counties, only had about two weeks notice that the COVID-era benefits would be ending in March and, anticipating increased need for food assistance, launched a fundraising campaign called Nourish the North. Manna is hoping to raise about $100,000 to go towards purchasing food for pantries and programs. That goal is a small portion of their total annual cost of food, which this year is projected to be about $700,000, Klingelsmith said.
Through the campaign, donors can choose to sponsor a mobile pantry or the Food 4 Kids program, which fills backpacks for students to ensure they have something to eat everyday.
Businesses can round up their sales, share a percentage of their sales or start a corporate employee match program and promise the funds to Manna.
“We can customize based on any business or corporation to meet their needs,” Klingelsmith said.
Manna has not set an end date for the campaign and will keep it going as long as necessary.
Even before the additional benefits ended, the organization was seeing an increase in the need for food assistance. This is apparent in the month-to-month data the nonprofit keeps. In January 2022, the Manna Food Pantry at 8791 McBride Park Ct. in Harbor Springs served 460 people. In January 2023, that number had doubled with 923 people served at the Manna Food Pantry alone.
“We've actually seen new people recently just because of inflation and the high cost of food itself. And they’re saying that they’re unsure (about seeking assistance for the first time). This is part of Nourish the North, is to increase awareness. Just letting people know that we're here to help them, we're not here to judge, we're just here to help in any way that we can and to lessen that burden on their monthly cost,” Klingelsmith said.
“We really try to offer them food with dignity and respect.”
For Brother Dan’s Food Pantry at 415 State St. in Petoskey, the increase in people seeking assistance has been more gradual. Before the pandemic, director Barb Stoddard said the pantry was serving anywhere between 65 to 75 families per week. When lockdowns began, the pantry provided pre-packed takeout boxes instead of having people come in to shop and saw a drop in the number of people coming to the pantry.
Since then, Stoddard said their numbers have been steadily increasing, with a noticeable uptick in the last month.
“I think it's definitely because of inflation and the increase in groceries,” Stoddard said. “I’m not quite sure how much a family gets for a Bridge card (SNAP benefits). I know that they were getting additional monies and I believe that has stopped now. So, that may be part of why we're seeing more people now.”
Brother Dan’s is a partner of Manna and sources some of their food through them, as well as through Feeding America and local sources.
Stoddard said eggs in particular have been difficult and expensive to get, with the cost of 50 dozen going from $20 to $50. Both Manna and Brother Dan’s have had trouble getting canned goods like fruit and meat due to supply and cost.
According to Ortega, supply issues are not the only factor driving up price. Cost of labor, transportation and production are having an effect.
“Especially for items that are more processed (like canned food),” Ortega said. “Those prices rise a little bit faster than others.”
Ortega said the food price inflation rate peaked around August of last year and is slowly starting to come down. While this doesn’t mean that food prices are decreasing, it means that prices aren’t increasing as quickly as they were.
“We're still a long way to wait and get it back to that pre-COVID 2 percent year-over-year (inflation rate),” Ortega said.
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According to Feeding America, rural communities are hit particularly hard by hunger. Many low-income households don’t qualify for federal nutrition programs like SNAP and so rely on food pantries.
The issue of rising prices is not an easy one to solve as there are many impacting factors worldwide like supply chain issues, energy costs and climate change. While food inflation is starting to come down, prices are still 10 percent more than they were a year ago.
Ortega said a shorter term solution is making assistance programs and food pantries accessible for those who need them.
“We have to ensure that there's a safety net for particularly low-income households that are being impacted the most by rising prices,” Ortega said.
“There's more than enough food in the world to feed everybody. The issue is making sure that that food gets to the people that need it the most.”
— Contact reporter Tess Ware at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @Tess_Petoskey.
This article originally appeared on The Petoskey News-Review: Food pantries seeing increased need after COVID-era assistance ends