U.S. Food Banks Struggle to Feed Hungry Amid Surging Prices

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -
Wilken Louie, resourcing director at the Alameda County Community Food Bank, holds a box of frozen tilapia filets, in Oakland, Calif., Nov. 5.  (AP Photo/Terry Chea)

U.S. food banks already dealing with increased demand from families sidelined by the pandemic now face a new challenge — surging food prices and supply chain issues walloping the nation.

The higher costs and limited availability mean some families may get smaller servings or substitutions for staples such as peanut butter, which costs nearly double what it did a year ago.

“What happens when food prices go up is food insecurity for those who are experiencing it just gets worse,” said Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Feeding America, a nonprofit organization that coordinates the efforts of more than 200 food banks across the country.

Food banks that expanded to meet unprecedented demand brought on by the pandemic won’t be able to absorb forever food costs that are two to three times what they used to be, she said,

Supply chain disruptions, lower inventory and labor shortages have all contributed to increased costs for charities on which tens of millions of people in the U.S. rely on for nutrition. Donated food is more expensive to move because transportation costs are up, and bottlenecks at factories and ports make it difficult to get goods of all kinds.

If a food bank has to swap out for smaller sizes of canned tuna or make substitutions in order to stretch their dollars, Fitzgerald said, it’s like adding “insult to injury” to a family reeling from uncertainty.

In the prohibitively expensive San Francisco Bay Area, the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland is spending an extra $60,000 a month on food. Combined with increased demand, it is now shelling out $1 million a month to distribute 4.5 million pounds (2 million kilograms) of food, said Michael Altfest, the Oakland food bank’s director of community engagement.

Pre-pandemic, it was spending a quarter of the money for 2.5 million pounds (1.2 million kilograms) of food.
The cost of canned green beans and peaches is up nearly 9% for them, Altfest said; canned tuna and frozen tilapia up more than 6%; and a case of 5-pound frozen chickens for holiday tables is up 13%. The price for dry oatmeal has climbed 17%.

It’s unclear to what extent other concurrent government aid, including an expanded free school lunch program in California and an increase in benefits for people in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, will offset rising food prices. An analysis by the Urban Institute think tank in Washington, D.C. found that while most households are expected to receive sufficient maximum benefits for groceries, a gap still exists in 21% of U.S. rural and urban counties.

Bryan Nichols, vice president of sales for Transnational Foods Inc., which delivers to more than 100 food banks associated with Feeding America, said canned foods from Asia — such as fruit cocktail, pears and mandarin oranges— have been stuck overseas because of a lack of shipping container space.

Issues in supply seem to be improving and prices stabilizing, but he expects costs to stay high after so many people got out of the shipping business during the pandemic. “An average container coming from Asia prior to COVID would cost about $4,000. Today, that same container is about $18,000,” he said.

At the Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado in Colorado Springs, CEO Lynne Telford says the cost for a truckload of peanut butter — 40,000 pounds (18,100 kilograms) — has soared 80% from June 2019 to $51,000 in August. Mac and cheese is up 19% from a year ago and the wholesale cost of ground beef has increased 5% in three months. They’re spending more money to buy food to make up for waning donations and there’s less to choose from.