Food banks struggle with inflation costs as demand spikes High food and gas prices are squeezing working families, sending some to food pantries for the first time. But providers are struggling with high costs, fewer donations and supply chain woes.

Demand at food banks is way up again. But inflation makes it harder to meet the need

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Inflation has demanded food pantries spiking. But those higher costs are also making it harder for food banks to meet the need. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Outside a neighborhood food pantry in Norfolk, Va., it's early evening. And some in line have come from work. Justine Lee is a teller at a credit union. She'd never gone to a food bank until prices went crazy this year. Now, with inflation...

JUSTINE LEE: A lot of fussing between mothers and daughters (laughter).

LUDDEN: She says it's hard saying no to an 11-year-old.

LEE: You know, we're back and forth, you know, like, no, what about Kroger brand? I want Dorito. I was like, well, it's not on sale right now.

LUDDEN: Lee has to drive to work. She didn't used to think twice about filling the tank.

LEE: It was empty yesterday (laughter). I was like, let me just drive a little bit. I know there's at least 10 cents or 5 cents cheaper down the road. And then I caught myself. Wow, am I really doing this?

LUDDEN: School bus driver Monique Wilson is also new here.

MONIQUE WILSON: It's been a few months since I started coming, just to supplement my food budget.

LUDDEN: She and her husband have cut back on eating out. And Wilson tries to use as little gas as possible.

WILSON: Just driving my car, I try to make one trip do for all and get as many stops in as I can, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right. Thank you, ma'am. And you already been here before, so you know the routine, right? Thank you, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, I know...

LUDDEN: Inside, people check-in, grab a shopping cart and stroll along shelves to choose their own food. Robert Walton and his wife are retired but raising two grandkids. He picks out bags of applesauce, juice and sunflower seeds.

ROBERT WALTON: Little snacks like this, that's what the kids like when they can get it.

LUDDEN: And he doesn't just mean his own. Walton also brings food for children in his neighborhood. He says he can tell they're missing meals and their parents are hard up.

WALTON: A lot of them is not working since the pandemic, you know? And it's been bad.

LUDDEN: The overall economy may be booming, but the unemployment rate for Black people is more than double the national average. Walton and other regulars here say they've noticed some favorite items missing, especially meat. That's because even as demand surges, inflation and a whole range of other problems are making it really tough to get food.

CHRISTOPHER TAN: So this is the sorting room. This is where volunteers come to sort.

LUDDEN: A few blocks away, Christopher Tan heads the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore. He says food donations are way down. Grocery stores got more efficient with online orders during the pandemic, so they don't have as much extra. Plus, everyone's struggling with supply chain problems. Things that used to take a few weeks may not show up for months.

TAN: Breakfast cereal, pasta, pasta sauce - these are things that are the staples of almost every food bank, right? It's very difficult to find.

LUDDEN: It's so bad, he just ordered turkeys for Thanksgiving. Then there's the cost. Tan now has to buy more food on the open market at higher prices. What was less than $1,000,000 before the pandemic will be nearly 5 million this year. And the fuel budget for his delivery trucks has doubled. But as a food bank, he's stuck.

TAN: With inflation, if you're a private business, what do you do? You pass on the costs. And inflation gets even worse, right? So you just keep passing it on. But you at least try to make up for it. We don't get to do that. We don't get to say, like, we're going to double the cost of our food because doubling the cost of our food is still zero.

LUDDEN: Katie Fitzgerald, the head of Feeding America, says providers are cutting where they can, dipping into emergency reserves, switching to cheaper products, limiting how often people can visit.

KATIE FITZGERALD: Or if food banks are preparing boxes for distribution, they might be putting in a little bit less in order to make sure that they're stretching their inventory to be able to meet more people's needs.

LUDDEN: Fitzgerald says even beyond this crisis, persistent hunger is a symptom of the country's wider inequality. She says for decades, wages have lagged, especially for those without a college degree, while costs for housing, health care and education grew exponentially.

FITZGERALD: You know, 30, 40 years ago, it was really an emergency food system for people who really had no other option. And today, we're seeing a lot of folks that are kind of budgeting in charitable food into their monthly budget. And when that is happening in this country, something is fundamentally wrong because a lot of these folks are working.

EVERETT JONES: Come right on in.

LUDDEN: Everett Jones is retired after a career as a traveling stagehand. He and his wife live in subsidized senior housing in Virginia Beach and get food stamps. And still, for years, he says, food donations have been an absolute necessity. Now inflation means painful choices.

JONES: It's affected me pretty grievously. The gas prices are so high that I have to cancel doctor's appointments that I just - they're too far away.

LUDDEN: He's put off physical therapy for his bum knee, allergy shots, even a cardiology follow-up after he was hospitalized with a heart problem. Jones says he can hardly afford batteries for his hearing aids.

JONES: It's a lot of stress, a lot of worry, a lot of self-denial of things that we should not have to deny ourselves.

LUDDEN: Jones jokes he may get a horse and buggy to save on gas. But if prices stay this high for a lot longer, he truly doesn't know what else he'll be able to do without.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Norfolk.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE POETS OF RHYTHM SONG, "SMILIN' (WHILE YOU'RE CRYING)")

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