South Florida food banks struggle with inflation, rising demand

South Florida food banks struggle with inflation, rising demand

Families are feeling the bite of inflation at the gas pumps, at the grocery stores and in their rent prices. As more families turn to food banks to make ends meet, South Florida meal sharing programs are struggling too.

“Demand is increasing out there,” said Stephen Shelley, the CEO of Florida-based food bank Farm Share. “The general population that are affected by inflation, high gas prices, high rent, food costs, household staples, they’re once again turning to food banks for support.”

Federal programs were created in response to increased need for food during the pandemic, bringing more food to South Florida banks. But these pandemic-era programs, including the CARES Act and Build Back Better, are leveling off in 2022 and 2023, creating a gap in food supply for local food banks.

Paco Vélez, the CEO of Feeding South Florida, said that new faces are coming through the door, and they’re coming more often.

“These are folks that were on a certain income, not necessarily fixed, but a certain salary range or hourly rate. And that hourly rate doesn’t go as far as it used to,” Vélez said. “Some folks that didn’t really think that they would have to be here, are here now.”

As the pandemic’s effects lessened, Vélez said the numbers stabilized and fewer people were coming in each week. But then gas prices hit, rent went up and now demand has surged again.

Johnny Feery, who has been volunteering since February at Feeding South Florida in Pembroke Park, said he’s observing the same pattern.

“I do know we’re getting more first-timers,” he said. “There’s more people coming and then signing up to come back. In the last month or two we’ve gotten more new faces.”

Feeding South Florida services Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe County. Pre-pandemic, the organization was serving about 700,000 individuals in those areas, according to Vélez. During the pandemic, that number surged to 1.5 million, and it hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. The group is still serving about 1.1 million people.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program is a major source of food from the federal government that the banks rely on. In past years, trade mitigation programs, and hurricane- and pandemic-relief packages have buoyed food reserves alongside the food assistance program. According to data provided by Farm Share, which operates across the state, these other streams of food are disappearing, even though families — and by extension food banks — still need the additional assistance.

“The government needs to step up to the plate and increase the amount of food coming through the TEFAP program,” said Palm Beach County Food Bank CEO Jamie Kendall. “All of these programs that additional funding came through [along with] the TEFAP program have now dried up, they’re gone.

“They’ve expired, and the need is not expiring,” Kendall said.

Inflation and its effects are rippling across the country. When shipping delays and diesel prices start to compound, there’s a sense that there’s only so much any organization can do to minimize inflation’s impact.

“A lot of this is outside of our control,” Shelley said. “People are doing what they can, and you’ve got the supply chain issues which have been in a constant state of disrepair or flux for the last two or three years. And so it becomes very frustrating to try to figure out how to almost reinvent the wheel in some respect.”

Vélez said more and more people who didn’t expect themselves to be turning to food banks are doing so now, as they negotiate between paying their electric bills, picking up prescriptions and getting groceries. Nadine McCrea, the founder of the Community Enhancement Collaboration in Hollywood, said she’s watching people wrestle with those decisions.

“For a poor family, the extra gas money comes from making hard choices like having to skip meals and eat a lot of beanie and weenies. Never mind fresh fruit and vegetables that are out of the question now,” McCrea said.

At a food drive on June 24 at the Community Enhancement Collaboration, roughly 250 people drove up and had their cars loaded with food. They serve over 1,500 people a week, and McCrea said that the organization has seen a 30-40% increase in need because of inflation.

“Families are having to make a lot of tough choices, more than I can ever recall, even more than during the recession in 2009,” McCrea said.

Inflation hit a 40-year high in May as the federal government continues to increase interest rates to curb the issue. Kendall and Vélez also drew parallels to the level of demand for food that they saw during the recession.

“I haven’t seen this since the recession, Vélez said. “And I think this time it’s worse.”

For now, the food banks are trying to come up with their own solutions.

“We’ve got staff making phone calls on a daily basis trying to find additional sources of food products through the private sector, through the wholesalers, the brokers, the grocery store chain, the local farmers,” Shelley said. “Trying to find where we can to supplement the food supply, until something else is done about it.”

Feeding South Florida is leaning on its other services to help individuals get more sources of aid or higher-paying jobs, which could decrease how often they’re coming into the food bank.

“We’re trying to help our families with job training and federal application assistance, to try to kind of stabilize them a little bit,” Vélez said.

Kendall said her organization is in contact with officials about this issue and about trying to secure more food. They’re waiting for answers on additional funding or new programs at the national level, but so far nothing has come through.

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Food banks depend in part on donated food from retailers like Publix, but also on donations from farmers. Small or misshapen produce that wouldn’t sell easily in a grocery store often finds its way to food banks. During the summer’s slower harvest season, local produce is harder to come by, and the private sector is feeling the effects of inflation too. Banks have to import more food from out of state, and when diesel currently runs about $5.70 a gallon, it adds up.

“We’re seeing our food donations with the stores and our retail partners are kind of drying up because they just don’t have the access to donate anymore,” Kendall said.

There’s only so much the food banks can do on their own, these executives said. They need the kind of help that comes in during hurricanes or during COVID.

“We’re barely able to meet the demand now,” Shelley said, “Much less as the demand continues to increase and the food supply continues to go downward without any additional assistance or programs coming in for the federal government.”

The South Florida community is coming together to do what they can, these executives said. Donors have reached deeper as they see what’s happening, and volunteers are continuing to show up even as budgets tighten and gas prices remain high. It makes a difference, but Kendall said she’s concerned things will get worse before they get better.

“I’m pretty worried with this one, I’m not gonna lie,” Kendall said. “We just went through our budgeting process, and all these inflationary expenses that are affecting the average family are affecting us as an organization. It’s going to be a tight year.”

Staff writer Olivia Lloyd can be reached at [email protected]