As costs rise, Upper Valley food shelves step up for people in need

LEBANON – Upper Valley organizations that provide charitable food to people in need are warning that the increase in demand they’ve seen lately may point to broader economic challenges as some COVID-19 pandemic relief programs end, and as inflation and high fuel prices persist.

Listen Community Service’s food pantry on Hanover Street in Lebanon saw 682 visits last month, up from a rough average of 550 visits per month previously, Angela Zhang, Listen’s program services director, said. Among those visiting Listen’s food pantry were 150 people who were brand new to the organization, she said.

“Suddenly it just like really shot up,” she said. March was “our busiest month ever.”

While people can’t often cut back on rent, they can reduce what they spend on groceries, she said. She interprets the “huge jump” Listen saw in the food pantry as an indicator that “things are not great.”

“My typical feeling is that food pantry demand is sometimes our best indicator of families in need,” Zhang said.

The uptick in demand coincided with a steep increase in gas prices associated with the ongoing war in Ukraine and inflation, which continues to drive up prices. At the same time, it’s been a while since people collected pandemic stimulus checks and the child tax credit program ended in December.

While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is driving up demand, it appears widespread. John Sayles, the CEO of the Vermont Foodbank, said the organization has seen demand climb for its VeggieVanGo program, which provides people with fresh produce through regular stops at schools and hospitals around the state.

“It’s a mix of all kinds of people,” he said, including families and older Vermonters.

Sayles pointed to the end of stimulus payments, rental assistance and child tax credits as some of the reasons why people might be turning to charitable food now.

“Since all those things ended, we’ve seen the demand coming back to normal,” Sayles said.

At the same time, food prices, rent and fuel costs have all risen, he said. He said the cost of fuel for the Foodbank’s trucks is up 35% and the cost of Vermont eggs is up 63%.

“People are not feeling like the ends are coming together at the end of the month,” he said.

As with its food pantry, Listen has also seen a spike in demand for its community dinners at its White River Junction location on Maple Street. The dining hall saw visits climb from an average of about 2,000 monthly to 2,700 last month, Zhang said.

Meanwhile, the organization has seen the cost of providing food and meals climb. It’s also becoming more challenging to predict what might be available on certain days due to supply chain issues. As a result, the organization no longer puts out a monthly menu for its community dinners, Zhang said.

“Protein has been really hard to come by,” Zhang said. “Beef is just too expensive now.”

The food pantry has tried stocking more pork, which is less expensive, to replace the beef, but that comes with a downside as it’s “not culturally appropriate for everybody,” she said.

Elsewhere, Jenny Copeland, coordinator of the Bradford, Vt. food shelf in the Bradford Academy Building on North Main Street, said demand has recently returned to normal levels after dropping off earlier in the pandemic. In the past six weeks, Copeland said traffic at the food shelf has returned to pre-pandemic levels of about 70 visits per month. There were times earlier in the pandemic when the food shelf had just 30 visits a month and days went by without any.

“I’m guessing that it’s maybe because some people were afraid to come,” Copeland said. “… Later maybe there was so much food that was being given away.”

During the pandemic, Vermont launched the Everyone Eats program, which provides people with prepared meals made by restaurants, and there was the USDA-sponsored Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

Copeland said suspects the recent increase is related to inflation and gas prices, “it stands to reason,” she said.

The Upper Valley Haven, which operates a food shelf in White River Junction, is seeing new people and has people visiting more frequently, Jennifer Fontaine, the Haven’s director of operations, said.

“Everything is going up in price,” Fontaine said, including groceries, gas and heating oil. For people living paycheck to paycheck, who may have already been reliant on charitable food, when “everything goes up, your need is going to go up more.”

People who come to the food bank are often looking for fresh produce, meat and other whole foods, some of the things that have seen the greatest increase in prices, Fontaine said. She noted that eggs and chicken have become harder to find amid the ongoing outbreak of avian flu. The war in Ukraine, which is known as the bread basket of Europe, is also driving up commodity prices.

“The interconnectedness of the whole world is just so clear,” she said. In spite of all the local and global challenges, Fontaine said the organization is “making it work. You just do your best. ”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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