CHICAGO – On a blustery afternoon in Lawndale, Beverly Harris waited in line outside Harmony Community Church for her turn to select from bags of apples and cartons of eggs, romaine lettuce and puff pastry from the food pantry in the church’s basement.
Though she had never needed to get food at a pantry before, Harris, of Lawndale, started coming about two months ago. Now, she visits the pantry most Wednesdays. The cost of everything is high. Every week, Harris said, it seems like the line outside the church gets longer and longer.
“Everybody needs help that I know of,” she said. Harris always leaves the pantry with enough food, and when she has more than enough, she shares with other people who need it, she said.
Harris is among a growing number of people who have turned to food pantries in recent months as grocery prices skyrocket amid rising inflation. Food pantries across the city said they are seeing increased demand as dollars don’t stretch as far at the supermarket and people feel the pinch on the price of everything from household goods to gas.
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Diane Carioscio, the food pantry’s director, said visits to the pantry started increasing toward the end of February, and the pantry is now serving about 25% more people than is typical. Carioscio attributes the increase to the rising cost of food, as well as the end of some government aid programs that were available earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are also in a food desert,” she said, meaning residents need to travel farther than they do in other neighborhoods to get to a grocery store. That means the price of gas, which has also risen precipitously, creates another barrier to food access.
Rosemarie Spears walked to the church Wednesday from her home nearby; gas prices are too high for her to drive, she said.
“My car is parked and not moving at all,” she said. “I have two feet.”
Spears said she’d been coming to the pantry for about a year, after she lost her job as a preschool teacher on the South Side. Spears used to receive unemployment, although that aid has since been cut off, she said. She had a baby girl six months ago and was able to get on food stamps recently.
Spears said she was considering starting a garden to grow her own produce, as are other people she knows. “They’re talking about, well, if we grow our fruits and vegetables, then we’ll be good,” she said. “But what about the bread, and the beans and the rice?”
Grocery and supermarket prices were 8.6% higher this February than in February 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Prices are expected to keep rising: the agency predicts grocery prices will increase between 3% and 4% this year, with the extent of inflation varying from product to product. Fresh fruit prices are expected to increase between 5% and 6% percent, with dairy prices expected to increase between 4% and 5% and fats and oils between 6% and 7%. The price of poultry, which could also be affected by an outbreak of avian influenza, is expected to increase by 6 to 7%.
At the same time, many government aid programs that helped families get through the beginning of the pandemic have expired. Sophie Milam, vice president of public policy and advocacy for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, noted the monthly payments some families received as part of the expansion to the child tax credit ended last year.
Federal nutrition programs such as SNAP, Milam said, are adjusted for inflation only once a year. That means people who are dealing with surging food prices right now will not see their aid adjusted until October. Some help is available; in Chicago, families will be able to apply for a $500-per-month pilot cash assistance program starting Monday.
An analysis from Northwestern University evaluating food insecurity in the Chicago metro area in late January and early February found more than 16% of households struggling with food insecurity. That percentage was highest among Black and Latino households, with 29% and 24% experiencing food insecurity, respectively, compared with 11% of white households. Families with kids were also more likely to struggle with access to food, the report found.
Demand is up at food pantries across Cook County, said Maurice Cousin, director of food access capacity for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. The depository provides food to roughly 400 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in Cook County. The food depository has provided food to pantries for free during the pandemic, and plans to do so for the upcoming fiscal year “and the foreseeable future,” Cousin said. A number of food pantry directors credited the program, at least in part, with their ability to keep high-quality food in stock.
Pastor Sandra Gillespie, who runs a food pantry at the Chosen Tabernacle church in Englewood, said she’s started to see demand surge over the last five or six months, particularly among seniors.
“I am literally talking to seniors who have to make a decision: am I going to buy my medicine or am I going to buy some food?” Gillespie said. “You’re getting $16 a month in food stamps, that’s not taking you very far with these surging prices.”
The pantry doesn’t need to ration the food they give out, at least not yet, Gillespie said. “If my numbers continue to rise again, I see that on the horizon,” she said.
Lakeview Pantry, which operates in Lakeview and Humboldt Park as well as online, saw monthly visits increase over 18% in March than in January, according to spokesperson Greg Trotter. During the same period, the organization saw demand from households with children increase more than 25%.
“A lot of folks are just really struggling with the prices at the grocery store,” said Kellie O’Connell, Lakeview Pantry’s CEO. “When they go in, their dollar doesn’t stretch as far as it used to. So they’re leaving the grocery store with less food for their families, for themselves, and then turning to a food pantry to supplement the groceries that they need for the week or for the month.”
The Pilsen Food Pantry is serving 300 to 360 people each week, said executive director Evelyn Figueroa. “It has just not stopped,” she said. That’s more people than the pantry was serving in March 2020, she said, though the pantry was relatively new at the time and more people are aware of its services now.
Most food pantry directors said demand was not close to reaching the heights it soared to at the beginning of the pandemic, when some people flocked to pantries for fear of food shortages. And despite supply chain problems, pantries generally aren’t having trouble keeping enough food on the shelves or serving everyone who shows up, although they’ve had to remain flexible when certain items are hard to get or their dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to.
Cousin said the surge in egg prices, for instance, meant the food depository had to switch to buying medium eggs instead of large ones in order to source the same amount of product.
“We have to buy less, or there’s certain things we can’t buy,” Figueora said.
“We all hate having days where there are carrots for the first 50 people,” she said. “We’d like there to be carrots for all the people.”
As the world gets back to normal, Cousin said, he wants people to understand that the communities hardest hit during the pandemic because of a lack of investment will be slow to recover.
“In no way is this pandemic or the effects of it in the food insecurity space over,” Cousin said. “Those most hardest hit will be on the road to recovery for years to come.”