Through many obstacles over the past few years, the Food Bank of Lincoln’s goal of supporting those in need hasn’t changed a bit.
But inflation has forced it to adapt in how it accomplishes that goal.
Inflation, which hit a 40-year high in March at 8.5% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, affects food prices, which in turn affect food banks. Food Bank of Lincoln Vice President of Operations and Impact Alynn Sampson has noticed the effects.
“A lot of people are experiencing inflated prices with groceries and we are not unique from that,” Sampson said. “Just for items such as produce, meat, dairy, a lot of the staple fresh and healthier items, seeing a cost increase.”
Sampson said the food bank hasn’t been able to buy its normal amount of milk and other items, which has resulted in a lower variety in available products overall. On any given day, their distribution center may only have five items available, rather than the more typical eight.
The food bank is also dealing with rising transportation costs, something Sampson began noticing last summer. She said that two years ago, the price to get a load of produce from California to Nebraska was about $3,000. Now it has more than doubled.
“By the time we were receiving it, it wasn’t the best quality either,” she said. “So all of those things have been happening. But I would definitely say last summer, the first thing that we saw was the transportation. And then late fall, early winter, is when we started to see the inflated prices really hit us.”
The Food Bank for the Heartland in Omaha is facing similar challenges. Stephanie Sullivan, the food bank’s communications and media relations manager, said the Omaha food bank spent 35% more than budgeted on fuel in the last half of 2021. Longer delivery times for staple items like cereal and juice have also been a problem.
“Our team is actually ordering products like two to three months in advance to ensure that we have those products in house,” Sullivan said. “If we don’t have access to these products, we have to find replacements for them. So that’s been trying on our organization as well.”
The spike in prices is ill-timed since demand is still high as result of the pandemic. Sullivan said the food bank expects food insecurity to take eight to 10 years to return to pre-pandemic levels.
“The pandemic, it has created the largest hunger crisis we’ve seen in our 40-year history,” Sullivan said. “Even though we’ve turned the corner on the pandemic, we are far from seeing the need for food go down. … We’re expecting to be in this for the long haul.”
Many food banks have had to rely on government support to manage throughout the pandemic.
Many states dropped extra Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in April. Those additional benefits had been instituted because of the pandemic. Nebraska ended its additional benefits in August 2021.
Sampson stressed that food banks can’t handle the issue of hunger alone and that government support is going to be needed. While the food bank has had support from donors and is appreciative of them, that isn’t always enough. Not getting governmental support makes things harder overall, Sampson said.
“I think it puts a lot of pressure on food banks, and a lot of nonprofit human service agencies who were also receiving extra support during the pandemic,” she said. “The pressure kind of goes back onto them.”
Food Bank for the Heartland is doing its best to educate the public on the state’s food insecurity and the related bills that would bring more support, according to Sullivan.
In the meantime, they’ve been helped by “overwhelming” support from the community.
“It’s been something that we truly can’t thank the community enough for,” Sullivan said. “Because it shows that in times of trial, and in times of desperation that the heartland supports those who are struggling, and it really shows that together, we can rise up through anything and make a difference.”
For now, Sampson said she and her team have been working on projecting future inflation trends to see where they can adjust.
More than anything, Sampson said, the food bank will keep fulfilling its mission.
“We are still going to keep showing up,” she said. “That’s what we do. And we’re going to be there for folks and make sure that they have food on the table and do it the most efficient way that we can.”