ASHEVILLE — As the COVID-19 pandemic bore down, MANNA FoodBank CEO Hannah Randall saw firsthand a sharp rise in food insecurity, and it hasn’t relented.
The nonprofit and its partner agencies last March served 128,690 people in Western North Carolina, a 93% jump from February to the onset of the pandemic.
“For us, throughout this pandemic, we just pulled out all the stops all the time, looking for every resource we could find to make sure people had a meal at home,” she said.
Now, more than a year later, the numbers have shown no signs of declining. Complicating the work to get needed food assistance to hundreds of thousands of regional clients is a supply chain that seems reluctant to stabilize.
MANNA usually relies heavily on food donations from individuals, retail chains and produce pack houses. The shakiness of the supply chain that’s increased both scarcity and cost of everything from ground beef to chicken wings also impacted MANNA.
“We’re starting to see a return of local produce donated from the pack houses, but retail donations are down significantly still,” Randall said. “The retail supply chain has not leveled itself out.”
Randall said that, compared to the same quarter last year, food donations were down by more than 2 million pounds, a 32% decrease. “That’s a pretty significant gap when there are more people facing hunger than we have ever seen,” she said.
In 2020 MANNA, which serves 16 WNC counties through a network of partner agencies, doubled its spending on food purchases to supplement donations and feed the ever-growing need for food.
“We have been challenged to figure out how to meet that need,” said Randall.
With MANNA’s fiscal year beginning anew in June, Randall said she and her team are working to project food purchasing needs for next year. Helping balance the budget is a $1 million appropriation from the state in the form of CARES Act funding.
“It’s truly a life saver in terms of how we can feed our communities,” Randall said.
Hunger, food prices stubbornly high
Despite the pandemic beginning to relent and the increasing availability of vaccines, food insecurity does not appear to be decreasing. The level of clientele MANNA served in March remained stable this year over last, according to Randall.
April’s numbers have not yet arrived, but Randall hopes she’ll see decreased need for food assistance, especially as some children returned to school and the access to food it provides.
But heightened grocery prices should linger, according to the Food Industry Association, a national trade association for the food industry.
Between June 2019-June 2020, consumer grocery prices rose 5.6% overall, several times the average rate of food inflation.
According to the trade group, the shift to eating at home, the loss of demand from food service operations and increased costs of operating in COVID for processing facilities and retail grocers have contributed to rising consumer prices.
Safety measures like plexiglass and increased labor needs increased costs for grocery stores, which also lost crucial sales from high-margin perks such as delis and salad bars.
Shipping bottlenecks and labor shortages from the field to storage facility also contributed to supply issues and drove price increases.
The Biden administration has attempted to target the impacts of rising food costs on the consumer end with the American Rescue Plan Act, which includes a commitment to fighting food insecurity.
Among the Rescue Plan’s funding was a multiyear $900 million investment in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, an allowance meant to account for increased enrollment.
The boosted WIC package also includes a temporary increase in fruit and vegetable vouchers to $35 per month.
A widescale expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, coupled with an extension of a 15% SNAP benefit increase, should help provide needed access to food, especially as schools let out for summer.
“That’s incredibly important, with grocery prices at a 50-year high,” Randall said. “That boost has gotten people back close to the amount of groceries they could buy before the food chain went awry.”
Randall said another key benefit that might not get as much attention is making a big difference for food insecure clients: the expansion of online SNAP purchasing through some SNAP-eligible retailers, critical to population most at risk for serious COVID-19 complications.
Child care, poor pay a factor
But even as need for food increases, a federal program meant to connect families in need with boxes of dairy, meat and produce from American farmers is shutting down.
The Trump administration’s Farmers to Families Food Box Initiative, which provided immediate assistance to millions during the COVID-19 health crisis, is ending.
“At the time that program started, it was an incredibly important way to get pre-boxed items during this heath crisis to people who needed it quick,” Randall said.
Still, she said, moving away from the food boxes at this time makes sense.
As crucial as the program was, it had its logistical challenges, including the boxing up of food that shouldn’t be stored together for long-distance travel.
Another was the cost of the program, Randall said, adding that moving away from it “eliminates the middle man.”
Now, rather than steering the distribution of food boxes, MANNA and its partners are moving back toward something more akin to a farmers market, or “client choice” model.
But the immediate need for food remains. Women still disproportionally struggle with the burden of finding reliable child care, which complicates an already difficult decision surrounding the safety of returning to the workforce. Then, there’s finding a way to make a living wage.
A worker must make $17.30 an hour in Buncombe County (or $15.80 an hour with employer-provided health insurance) to make ends meet in 2021, according to Just Economics, which certifies local businesses that pay a living wage.
That’s up nearly $2 from last year, driven largely by rising housing costs.
“Until we see more jobs with those kinds of wages showing up, people are going to continue to struggle,” said Randall.
That’s where MANNA comes in, she added.
“At MANNA, everyone is welcome at our table,” she said. “If you are having to make a decision about ‘do I pay my rent or get evicted and pay for food, or do I lose my car or pay for food,’ that’s where MANNA can help.”