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Increased need at local food bank continues due to inflation

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Elaine Wing of Labels by Pulizzi, packs a box of food while volunteering with her co-workers at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank last week. The team from Pulizzi packed 400 boxes of food.

Although the amount of food distributed by the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank has subsided from its all-time high of 74 million pounds at the height of the pandemic, the agency is still running above pre-pandemic levels and, in light of the current rate of inflation affecting food costs, the bank is preparing for the next wave.

“(It is) like a secondary crisis that’s coming right behind the economic crisis of the pandemic, which was more in 2020 and 2021 with all the business shutdowns and all of that,” said Joe Arthur, executive director of the food bank.

“What we’re seeing in 2022, when we got into the new calendar year we started to see an increase in the amount of calls that come to our helpline; the amount of pounds that we’re providing to our partner agencies; the amount of visits that they’re receiving that call on us to provide more food; more orders from our partner agencies on the ground. So we started seeing that in February and that’s really continued this slow but steady increase right through into May,” he said.

This year so far, the food bank has distributed 55 million pounds of food, which Arthur noted sounds like a drop — and it is — but it’s more than what was distributed the year before the pandemic began.

“While we’ve settled down to a more reasonable level, we’re still above 2019,” he said. “We believe that is coming in large part from the inflation that is hitting people at home as they’re trying to recover from the pandemic.”

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Vince Pulizzi, president of Labels by Pulizzi, tapes up a box of food while volunteering with his employees at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank last week. The team from Pulizzi packed 400 boxes of food.

“Our data shows that we served roughly the same number of unique households in the first six months of 2022 as we did during the first six months of 2021 (more than 68,000). This data does show a return to very high levels of demand for food assistance as the period of January to June 2021 was still very much in the pandemic period with higher unemployment and other economic disruption,” said Jennifer Sands, communications and marketing manager for the food bank.

“For us to have the same high level of unique households seeking food assistance in January to June 2022 is reliable data that supports that the current inflationary environment is stoking a higher level of demand,” Sands added.

Also fueling the problem are emergency programs issued by the federal government set to end this summer, which is why the food bank is expecting an increase in requests for assistance beginning later this year.

“Probably one of the biggest programs that we know is going to be impacted is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” Arthur said.

As of March this year, almost two million state residents were enrolled in SNAP.

“That’s going to absolutely bring thousands more people into our system here to supplement,” Arthur said.

During the pandemic, there was a public health emergency declared, which was scheduled to end in June, but has been extended until the end of next month. The emergency declaration also included a host of programs that were not specifically food-related, but that have the potential, when eliminated, to impact household income.

“Like Medicaid for instance,” Arthur indicated. “There are a lot of families who are going to be impacted by Medicaid reverting back to non-emergency rules.”

“We’re preparing for increases. Our hope is that it doesn’t become like it was in the pandemic. We’re certainly prepared for increases (this month),” Arthur said.

One way the food bank is preparing is by making sure its inventories increase as well.

“It’s challenging right now,” Arthur admitted, “because of some supply chain issues and also because of inflation.”

“Our costs are also inflated. We’re not immune to that, so across our cost base we have inflation pretty much everywhere,” Arthur said.

The agency has also been scaling up local food sourcing, for products such as fresh produce, dairy, eggs and meat.

“Central Pennsylvania is our bread basket, but we have other producers locally,” Arthur said. “We’re actually providing grants to our partner agencies so that they can work with smaller farms the way we do as a food bank with the larger farms. We’re providing grant money to them so that they can offer the farmers something for their surplus. Most farms have surplus on an ongoing basis.

“That’s something in the pandemic that we learned we need to do more of. And not just here at the food bank. That’s another strategy we’re going to be leaning into right as this increase in need is likely to come at us here,” he continued.

“Our donors continue to be strong. They really took care of this mission during the pandemic and we continue to deploy what we call our crisis funding. But we’re asking donors to just stay with us because this is not over yet,” he added.

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