At the height of the pandemic, as unemployment skyrocketed and schools shut down, food pantries across the United States struggled to keep up with demand, forcing millions of Americans to turn to food banks for the first time. To make matters worse, donations slowed and many retailers imposed quantity restrictions on purchases. “You just couldn’t get anything,” recalls Bob Silvia, chief procurement officer at the Food Bank for New York City. “We were competing with grocery stores to get the same product.”
Silvia expected demand to ease and inventory to bounce back as the economy recovered. But with high inflation driving up food prices, the pressures on charitable organizations like the Food Bank for New York City—the city’s largest hunger relief organization, with a network of over 800 pantries, soup kitchens, and campus partners across the five boroughs—only continue to mount. In July, food prices increased 10.9% year-over-year (the largest 12-month surge since May 1979), causing some pantries across the country to shutter and deepening a food insecurity crisis that existed long before the pandemic. “High inflation has had the same effect as the pandemic,” says Silvia. “People are still coming–our numbers haven’t dropped off at all.”
Elsewhere in the United States, rising prices have forced dozens of charitable nonprofits to shutter, temporarily close, or reduce services. This spring, Nashville’s Little Pantry closed down after five years of operation. New Jersey’s Angels Community Outreach announced a temporary closure due to supply shortages. And Utah’s Tooele Food Pantry canceled an important food drive because of staffing and logistical issues. Among the food banks that remain open, some are putting limitations on how often people can visit and how much food they can get.
The Food Bank for New York City isn’t dealing with the same supply shortages it did during 2020 peaks, according to Silvia, but it is facing the same high costs as everyone else—in some cases paying as much as 15% more for essentials like loaves of bread and canned tuna. It’s also making substitutions and receiving different kinds of donations as a result of inflation: instead of ground beef, people may be more likely to donate ground turkey, a more affordable option, while canned vegetables might replace fresh produce.
But inflation is far from the only factor at play. According to Silvia, many of the challenges the organization is facing are related to supply chain disruptions and shortages in materials like cardboards and cans, leading to order cancellations and delays. “One thing that often gets left out of the conversation is the infrastructure that it takes to package and deliver food,” he says, citing this year’s baby formula shortage as an example.
Other challenges include COVID-related labor shortages, drought and other extreme weather conditions, and a reduction in food stamp benefits and other programs that were put in place during the pandemic.
According to Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia’s war in Ukraine is another complicating factor. While the United States produces the majority of what it consumes (and thus, isn’t reliant on grain, barley, or other exports from Ukraine), Welsh explains, there are a number of ways that ripple effects of the war are impacting U.S. agriculture.
For one, Russia and Belarus provide about 40% of the world’s exports of potash, a key ingredient in mineral fertilizers, which are used in the global production of more than half of what the world eats today. As the price of fertilizer more than tripled between April 2020 and March 2022, many farmers have struggled to produce the yields necessary to meet demand. The fertilizer shortage is affecting farmers’ decision to replant, leading many to turn away from fertilizer-intensive crops like wheat, rice, and corn—all staples of American diets.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has also laid bare the U.S. food system’s overreliance on fossil fuel energy sources, which touch every aspect of the food chain from production and refrigeration to transportation. “When energy prices are high, food prices are right there with them,” Welsh explains.
In New York City, Silvia says he has seen a marked increase in Ukrainian refugees in the city’s food bank system—”and we’ve done our best to accommodate that group,” he says. “We try to procure culturally relevant foods for our communities.”
As food banks struggle to keep up with greater demand and deal with reduced supply, the need for financial donations and volunteers has become all the more urgent. Food banks and pantries are encouraging people to take action—by donating their time, dropping off food, organizing a fundraiser, or making a monetary donation.
One of the best ways to get involved is by holding a food drive. To do so, contact your local food bank, ask them what supplies they need, how they prefer to receive donations, and any protocols around pick-up and drop-off. Feeding America recommends collecting donations for at least two weeks and focusing on essential items like dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean proteins. To amplify your impact, consider opening up the food drive to colleagues, neighbors, classmates, and other members of the community.
Another way to contribute is by clearing out your own pantry and bringing a box of items to your local food pantry or soup kitchen. Be sure to check for expiration dates and focus on shelf-stable goods and retail-sized food containers (bulk-sized products are more difficult to parcel out and distribute). Some local food banks will even accept leftover food from parties and other functions, but you’ll want to check beforehand.
If you’re short on time, a monetary donation can go a long way. Some organizations even recommend cash donations over food, as money can cover the cost of transportation, rent, and other non-food-related expenses. The funds also help create a more sustainable system that gives workers “buffer” room when it comes to planning for the future and anticipating a community's needs. Make a donation to your local food bank, or to national hunger-fighting organizations like Feeding America, Action Against Hunger USA, or Feed the Children.
In the longer term, however, Welsh says we need to strengthen federal safety nets like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help reduce the demand at food banks and pantries, which weren’t designed to be long-term solutions but rather emergency responses. And when an “emergency” lasts for more than several years (even before the pandemic, 13.7 million households in the United States were food insecure), it necessitates a more systematic fix.