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Before the pandemic began, residents visited food pantries less than twice per year on average. As of this year, families are coming five to six times per year on average.
“The number of people we’re seeing today is comparable to what we were seeing in 2020, sometimes higher,” said Foodbank Inc. development director Lee Truesdale.
Foodbank volunteer Dianne Charron, who took on a shift in the Foodbank’s warehouse earlier this month, said the rising cost of living is putting a burden on families everywhere.
“Food insecurity is a major, major issue in our communities,” Charron said as she was preparing to package senior meal boxes with her co-workers on an assembly line. “With the rising cost of, well, everything, there are families who may have never needed help who are now coming to pantries and food banks.”
Food insecurity by the numbers
Foodbank Inc. in Dayton is a part of a network of 200 Feeding America food banks nationwide, 12 of which are in Ohio.
Feeding America annually collects data regarding food insecurity, or the state of lacking consistent access to nutritious food.
Feeding America released its 2021 report this year. Truesdale explained that data is collected annually, but analyzed by Feeding America the next year and published the year following.
According to Feeding America, Foodbank Inc.’s service area of Montgomery, Greene and Preble counties has a food insecurity rate of 11.9%.
More than 16% of children in the region are food insecure, according to Feeding America.
Truesdale said a lot has changed in the region since 2021.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services issues monthly reports regarding the number of public assistance recipients in the state. The department’s most recent report, from August 2023, shows 47,096 total households receiving SNAP benefits in Montgomery, Greene and Preble counties.
This February, pandemic emergency SNAP benefits, which added to recipients’ monthly allotment based on income and household size, ended.
Since the end of pandemic-era SNAP benefits, roughly 5% of 2,000 SNAP participants polled by the Ohio Association of Foodbanks said their monthly benefits lasted a full month.
National studies too point to food insecurity significantly increasing. A United States Department of Agriculture study published this year said that in 2022, the number of people living in food insecure households across the United States was estimated as 44 million total individuals. That’s an increase of 31% compared to 2021.
“Our lines are still so long and we’re still seeing so many families,” Truesdale said.
Need persists as food prices stay high
Foodbank Inc. is also noticing a strong influx of families seeking assistance for the first time this year, accounting for more than 40% of households served by the Foodbank.
Roughly eight in ten food bank clients reported in 2023 they were seeking help due to the high cost of food, according to the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
Truesdale said families have to juggle other costly expenses like housing and gasoline on top of grocery bills, adding to strain on a family’s budget.
“People have to make some really difficult decisions,” said Truesdale. “And that’s everything from choosing the less healthy option, to cutting back or to skipping medications that might be costly, so you can buy more food and learn the health ramifications of that. There’s so much that plays a role in all of this.”
Foodbank Inc. also helps thousands of seniors and children in the region through food box programs. Roughly 30% of the food bank’s clients are children aged 0 to 17, whereas adults older than 60 accounted for 20% of their clientele this year.
Food cost impact
Inflation is impacting the organizations that help hungry people, too.
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks reports that its network of nonprofits is straining from more than a year of inflation, supply chain issues, high food prices and elevated need among clients.
Locally, Foodbank Inc. has seen a 33% increase in its wholesale budget needs, spending $1 million or more on food purchases as opposed to $750,000 just a few years ago.
The summer of 2022 was when the impacts of inflation became very evident at the Foodbank, Truesdale said. But the prices of food items they purchased haven’t significantly went down since then.
Food products the nonprofit purchases have across the board increased in price compared to purchases made in 2020.
Foodbank Inc., which purchases its food items in bulk, in 2020 was once paying less than 60 cents per unit for milk packets. Now the food bank pays close to a dollar per unit. A box of whole wheat pasta once cost 62 cents per box, but now the food bank pays $1.26. A can of mandarin oranges, once a 50 cent purchase, is now 94 cents.
The Foodbank last year distributed 18 million pounds of food.
Foodbank Inc. has partnerships with retail grocery stores and others to arrange donations of food items that the food bank can then distribute to families, and other partnerships allow the nonprofit to glean produce in the region.
But some programs are funded solely by the wholesale food budget. This includes the children’s weekend food kit program, which costs $10 per box, among other programs.
Fundraising is a major revenue stream for food banks. Roughly 75% of dollars that come to the food bank are raised by the public, and every dollar raised through the Valley Food Relief program goes to the food bank’s wholesale food budget, Truesdale said.
Assistance now, ahead
Truesdale said the Foodbank is challenging the stigma surrounding food assistance. Some people attending food distributions or other services report feeling embarrassed to ask for help, but many people calling the food bank tell workers that they don’t believe they qualify for help.
“If someone ever has a question about that... let’s have a really honest conversation about it,” Truesdale said. “Because the likelihood that there’s a service available for you that we can help find for you? It’s out there.”
Food security advocates at the Ohio Association of Foodbanks are urging Ohio’s policymakers to strengthen social safety net programs and seek long-term solutions to ending hunger.
Dayton’s Foodbank is planning to create a 31,000 square-foot facility on its property with the help of $2 million in federally earmarked dollars. Truesdale said she this facility, a community center, will be geared toward addressing the root causes of hunger.
“And we’re looking to make real and lasting change in this building we think will allow us to really work toward that in a new level,” she said.