The demand on food pantries has ballooned two months after the end of pandemic-era benefits

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB/Report for America) — When the pandemic-era boost to low-income food assistance expired in March, many worried that families in southeast Ohio would suffer.

Two months later, those predictions appear to be coming true.

“We used to plan for about 150 (households). Then it jumped to 250. Now we’re looking at more like 350 and 450. And that’s households that come per month to just our pantry,” said Terry Witt, founder and director of Transforming Lives Thru Christ, a food pantry serving Jackson and Gallia counties.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration temporarily expanded the money allotted to families through the federal SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps). The Biden administration further expanded that program in 2021, but the most recent federal omnibus spending bill returned SNAP benefits to pre-pandemic levels in March.

The loss of expanded benefits, coupled with inflation, has put low-income families in a difficult position. As a result, demand on local food assistance has increased significantly.

Witt said her pantry served 1,687 households total in 2022. As of May 10 this year, they had already served 1,534.

“It’s hard for them to come,” Witt said. “Many of these families, they come in lost. They’ve never had to come to a food pantry before. They don’t know how all this works. They stand in the door, ‘I don’t know where to go, I don’t know what to do.’”

Food items available at the Mobile food bank site in Gallia County
Workers waited to distribute items at a mobile food bank site in Gallia County in July 2022. Almost a year later, the food bank continues to face significant supply shortages. [Theo Peck-Suzuki | WOUB | Report for America]
A recent survey conducted by the Ohio Association of Food Banks found that a growing number of families are having to choose between food and other critical necessities, such as utilities (66% of food bank users), medical needs (55%) and housing (50%).

Ultimately, this results in a greater cost to taxpayers, according to Eva Bloom of the Southeast Ohio Food Bank. When people can’t afford medicine, they suffer health consequences — especially when they also can’t afford nutritious food.

“We’re gonna pay for this one way or another,” Bloom said. “You decide. Do you wanna pay on the front end a little bit to give people nutritious food, or are we gonna pay more in Medicaid?”

Under normal circumstances, the Southeast Ohio Food Bank provides most of the food available at food pantries like Witt’s. However, the food bank has faced shortages since inflation picked up last summer. The food bank was also never meant to provide regular food supplies to families. That’s what SNAP is for.

Consequently, the food bank’s supplies are low. That in turn means food pantries are struggling to keep their shelves stocked.

“We are not getting everything from the food bank,” said Karin Bright, president of the Athens County Food Pantry. “We used to get everything from the food bank, and we’re not able to cover everything we need. So now, we’re doing a lot of local purchasing as well.”

“Local purchasing” means buying products at retail price, which is significantly more expensive.

“To be able to go out and buy peanut butter — instead of 19 cents a pound, which is what we typically could get it for, now we may be paying $1.79 a jar,” Bright said.

The Athens County Food Pantry can afford those prices due in part to the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund. The fund began when donations flowed into southeast Ohio following Burrow’s 2019 Heisman Trophy award speech.

Most food pantries don’t have anywhere near the same level of resources. When they can’t get what they need from the food bank, their options are limited.

“We are putting together bags of food, but it’s skimpy at best,” Witt said.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with the other seven months of this year,” she added.

Some efforts are under way to address the situation. The Ohio Association of Food Banks currently has a $50 million ask to the state government for additional funding. It hasn’t gotten that, but the Ohio House of Representatives has written an additional $15 million for food banks into its draft of the upcoming state budget. The budget still has to clear the Senate before it can be signed into law.

The Southeast Ohio Food Bank’s Eva Bloom said Rep. Jay Edwards, whose district includes much of Athens and other counties in southeast Ohio, has been instrumental in efforts to secure those funds.

Meanwhile, the 2023 farm bill currently being debated in Congress will shape federal food assistance programs like SNAP for the next several years.

Bright said she has concerns about that bill due to proposals imposing additional work requirements on SNAP recipients.

“For some people, to try to get to a job just to meet that work requirement is extremely challenging, because they would have to drive 20, 30 minutes each way,” Bright said. Many of those people can’t afford the gas, let alone child care.

She said she’d like to see more people using their voices to advocate for food security in their communities.

“We can come together collectively and talk to our legislators to address some of these issues that can be addressed, should be addressed, and there’s funding to start addressing them,” Bright said.