'Everything is more expensive': Food pantry demand rises amid worsening inflation
Thursday nights are always busy.
Though Food for Greater Elgin distributes groceries throughout the week, a steady stream of 170 people waited outside in a light, cold drizzle on a recent Thursday for their turn inside the food pantry.
Like many hunger-relief organizations across the suburbs, Food for Greater Elgin has become a lifeline as families grapple with surging food and fuel prices.
Though David has relied on the pantry for about a year, he said making ends meet has become more difficult. His wife has kidney disease and cannot work, and David said his income is not enough to cover rent, utilities and other bills. Add in the rising costs of groceries and gas, and his dollar just does not stretch as far as it once did.
"Everything is more expensive ... food -- bread, milk, eggs -- the basics have gone up a lot," David, who did not want his last name used, said in Spanish. "What I save (in groceries) I use for gas."
Across the suburbs, food pantries are seeing increased demand, as households struggle with inflation and the government assistance that was readily available during the pandemic has come to an end. A decline in donations from grocery stores and supply chain issues have put an additional strain on some pantries.
At Batavia's Interfaith Food Pantry, the month of February brought in 15 new families.
"We've seen a lot of people who we maybe haven't seen in three or four years coming back," Executive Director Eileen Pasero said.
Compared to last year, Food for Greater Elgin reported a 30% increase in people served between January and March.
"It's been building each month," Executive Director Michael Montgomery said.
In West Chicago, St. Andrew Lutheran Church began organizing a volunteer-run, drive-through distribution in March 2020 as an emergency response to COVID-19 and its economic aftershocks.
"I don't think we anticipated that we would still be here, and certainly what we're seeing in our communities is lingering effects of the pandemic," said the Rev. Josh Ebener, pastor of the church.
St. Andrew formed a partnership with the People's Resource Center to keep pace with demand. The number of households receiving food leveled off at about 300 on an average Saturday last year. But recently, more than 400 families a week have accessed groceries.
"Providing the food just certainly is a big support for families as they feel that strain" on their food budget, Ebener said. "Some of them maybe didn't need it there for a while, but I think the inflation pushed them back into that."
On a couple Saturdays, organizers ran out of food by around 9 a.m. and had to dash over to the Carnicerias Jimenez grocery store to get "at least some basic items for folks ... so they didn't go away empty-handed," Ebener said.
"We were still preparing for 400 families, which is a lot, but the fact that wasn't enough I think is illustrative of what the need is," Ebener said.
Families typically pick up rice, beans, tortillas, bread, fresh produce and a bag of protein. The church provides volunteers and its parking lot, while the People's Resource Center supplies the food.
The nonprofit also runs pantries in Wheaton and Westmont. In the month since mid-February, the Wheaton pantry provided 1,500 carts of food, while Westmont tallied just over 1,300, said Christina LePage, vice president of programs at People's Resource Center.
"After the holidays, our numbers tend to kind of trend down historically, and we're seeing them not taking quite as big of a dip as they normally do," she said.
The organization purchases items from the Northern Illinois Food Bank, "at a much reduced cost than we would from any other supplier," LePage said. Retailer donations are another major source of food, but there are now more limited options for fresh produce and other perishable items, LePage said.
In February, the Northern Illinois Food Bank served 363,000 people, compared with 300,000 in the summer months.
In addition to higher food and fuel costs, President and CEO Julie Yurko pointed to the end of federal aid programs for the increase.
"All of those programs stopped," she said. "While the pandemic may seem to be on a good path, the impact of the pandemic on our families ... will continue, we expect, for years to come."
A federal relief program for organizations such as the Northern Illinois Food Bank also has expired.
From July 2020 to June of last year, the agency received boxes of food representing 38 million meals through the USDA's Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and other avenues of federal support.
The boxes were distributed at pantries and pop-up distribution events. This fiscal year, the food bank expects to receive the equivalent of 8 million meals -- a drastic drop -- with the end of CFAP.
The food bank also anticipates spending more to purchase food. Yurko said that's partly because food donations have fallen as grocers or other partners have less to contribute. But prices also have increased. For example, pasta has gone up by 20%, and potatoes are up 5 cents a pound, Yurko said.
"It's harder than it has been in terms of food supplies than any time since I've been here," said Yurko, who has served the Northern Illinois Food Bank for 13 years.
The Schaumburg Township Food Pantry has been able to keep the shelves relatively full with community donations and free weekly deliveries of items from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, said Diana Nelson, the township's director of welfare services.
"I can't praise our community enough because they are so very generous," she said.
Food donations were up in January, but dropped 5% last month.
"We're not seeing all our regular donors on a regular basis anymore, in addition to somebody who used to bring in a full shopping cart full of items are now bringing in a bag of items," Nelson said. "The food costs just seemed to be making a difference for our donors as well."
The pantry fed 8,137 households in the last fiscal year, an 8% increase from 2019-20. The number of new clients also jumped by almost 24%.
"When we sit down as a caseworker with the clients, we're still showing that many clients are saying they're unemployed or underemployed, that people are calling in regarding gas prices and utility prices because not only gas for our cars, but also utilities for our houses have skyrocketed," Nelson said.
Food drives are "needed now more than ever," she said. The pantry had 706 visits in January, up from 581 at that time last year. The pantry is most in need of pasta, oatmeal, rice, flour and condiments, among other staples.
"We are relying on our donors," Nelson said. "We just want to make sure that no one ever goes hungry, that they know there is a place to go."