The financial strain of surging grocery and fuel prices is sending more Charlotte-area households to food pantries, some of which are wrestling with a drop in donations.
Grocery prices went up 11.9% in May and overall inflation went up 8.6% from last year, The Charlotte Observer previously reported. At the same time, applications for food stamps are at a two-year high, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services.
For many people, food stamps are not enough to cover their needs — adding stress on lower-income households.
“I’ve had at least 10 clients who came for appointments with us who were pulling up in their cars in tears,” Kenya Joseph, director and co-founder of Hearts & Hands, said.
Many families first turned to Hearts & Hands at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but no longer needed them once the economy began to recover after the height of the pandemic. Now, many of those families have returned.
Hearts & Hands is serving more people than it did during the pandemic, but donations — including corporate gifts — have fallen by 60-70% in the last few months, Joseph said.
“What we say internally is, we’re running 2020 again but without the support,” Joseph said.
Donations slow, but not a ‘complete drought’
At Loaves & Fishes in Charlotte, demand for food nearly doubled in May over a year ago. In 2021, the food pantry network packed boxes of groceries for just over 4,000 individuals. Last month, 8,000 individuals used the program.
In years past, shelves in the Loaves & Fishes warehouse just outside uptown were packed with boxes of food items waiting to greet families in need. Now, more shelves sit empty amid the cardboard boxes loaded with food — evidence of a drop in donations.
“It’s not a complete drought, but it’s certainly not the bountiful donations we’re used to,” CEO Tina Postel said.
The pantry resumed its annual food drive with USPS and The National Association of Letter Carriers in May after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. The drive usually brings in 60,000 pounds of food. This year, it collected just 13,000 pounds.
Although the recent surges in demand are less dramatic than they were during the pandemic, drastic inflation in food prices makes donating more expensive for people. It also makes it more expensive for Loaves & Fishes to purchase food, especially since they prioritize nutritious meals.
“It’s not as easy to buy a few extra cans here or a few extra cans there or a jar of peanut butter,” Postel said.
Higher gas prices have forced some Loaves & Fishes volunteers to reduce the days they deliver meals to seniors and others in the Friendship Trays program. The service typically sends 59 drivers to deliver 400 meals a day across Mecklenburg County. Loaves & Fishes is using staff members and hired drivers, and it has set up a second pickup spot in Huntersville to reduce driving time.
Financial donations also are down 8% this year, she said.
A $600,000 gift from Bank of America helps to offset the loss, Postel said. The nonprofit also has “stockpiled” funds in the event of another pandemic-like shock. Still, “we definitely need to hit the gas pedal on donations this summer,” Postel said.
Belief in community generosity
The number of people served daily at Camino Health Center, part of Loaves & Fishes’ network, has doubled, according to Ben Price, operations manager for its Food Farmacy. By Wednesday and Thursday, the center starts to run out of food.
Camino also is struggling to keep up with items such as dairy, diapers, paper towels and other goods that aren’t covered by food stamps.
The Bulb, a donations-based farmers market with 11 locations in Charlotte, “rescues” sellable items from grocery stores such as Trader Joe’s before they’re thrown out at the end of the day. Between 2021 and 2022, the nonprofit has seen a 40% increase in attendance overall and a 28% increase in attendance per market, executive director Ebonee Bailey said.
“Now that we’re transitioning out of this COVID life and pandemic, food insecurity is still real,” Bailey said. “And just because there isn’t a pandemic doesn’t mean there aren’t food-insecure residents.”
Despite the difficulties, Postel says Loaves & Fishes will continue to meet the needs of struggling residents.
“In our 46-year history, knock on wood, we have never had to turn anybody away because we couldn’t feed people because we ran out of food,” she said. “I really do believe in the generosity of the community, and they will rise to the challenge.”