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Harvesting empty shelves

Food banks struggling with donations down, inflation up

Staff photo / Allie Vugrincic Workers at Second Harvest Food Bank pause to talk while preparing food to be distributed Thursday afternoon at the warehouse on Salt Springs Road in Youngstown. On Thursday, the food bank that distributes around 50,000 pounds of food per day had about 459,000 pounds available — or about 10 days worth.

YOUNGSTOWN — Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley, which distributes to 172 partner pantries in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties, is itself hungry for food.

On Thursday, Second Harvest, which distributes about 50,000 pounds of food per day, had just more than 459,000 pounds of food available for distribution — 10 days worth of food.

“I’ve been here 22 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. Never,” Second Harvest Executive Director Michael Iberis said.

The perfect storm comes as inflation hits a 40-year high, gas prices idle around $4 per gallon and supply-chain problems prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic persist.

Now, food donations are down, and need is rising as families’ budgets are squeezed by the same problems — prompting many families to visit food pantries for the first time.

FIRST-TIMERS

Dominic Mararri, public relations director for the Warren Family Mission, which provides about 100,000 hot meals per year and also distributes food weekly, said the mission has seen a steady increase in need over the past few years.

“Whether it was from the pandemic or inflated gas prices, I feel we’ve truly seen people line up hours before food giveaways, which shows the urgency of going to get food and putting it on the table,” Mararri said.

The Warren Family Mission gets a large number of small private and business monetary donations, but the bulk of its food comes from Second Harvest.

“We get a food list every week, and we’re able to go on that food list and shop, and that food list is barer and barer and there’s less to choose from,” Mararri said.

He said there’s been a recent “spike” in people who are coming to the food distributions for the first time — each Friday about 30 people who never have visited the food pantry before join the line of cars that wraps around the block and backs up on West Market Street in front of the mission’s pantry.

That is roughly the same number of new families that have been registering for Immaculate Heart of Mary Church’s food distribution on the fourth Friday of the month, according to church pantry coordinator Pat Wolf.

Three months ago, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Austintown was feeding about 180 families made up of some 500 individuals, he said. With need on the rise, the church fed closer to 250 families in June and on Friday prepared enough for 270 families.

The pantry’s total registry includes more than 500 families, but not everyone comes every week, Wolf explained. Senior citizens on fixed incomes are regulars, but Wolf said younger families with children also are making more frequent appearances.

Immaculate Heart of Mary’s distribution is scheduled from 2 to 5 p.m. but gets started as soon as the volunteers are ready. Friday, that was around 12:30 p.m., and some cars already had been waiting for two hours, Wolf said.

In addition to fresh produce and meat, each family gets a box of dry goods, which usually is overflowing, but recently has been on the lighter side.

“If Second Harvest doesn’t have it, we don’t have it,” Wolf said.

Immaculate Heart of Mary also distributes a half-gallon of milk and a dozen eggs to every family, which the pantry purchases at an Aldi supermarket. With prices climbing, there was talk of cutting back to half a dozen eggs, but Wolf said the pantry has been fortunate to get enough monetary donations to continue giving the full dozen.

SUPPLY AND DEMAND

Second Harvest’s biggest supplier of food is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Iberis said, but this year USDA commodities are down 59 percent. Seventeen loads of USDA food have been canceled or delayed this calendar year, Iberis said.

The shelves that usually hold USDA food at Second Harvest’s Salt Springs Road warehouse are sparse, to say the least. A few dozen pallets offer a paltry selection: raisins, hazelnuts, peanut butter, lentils, grapefruit juice, dates, pistachios and an abundance of one item — garbanzo beans.

“We have about 10 days’ worth of food — that is, if they take garbanzo beans,” Iberis joked.

Usually, the food bank that distributes to 172 partner pantries in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties would have some 1.3 million pounds of food on hand at any given time, Iberis said.

While the undersupply in USDA food is Second Harvest’s largest problem, it is far from the only factor in play. Donations from retailers and manufacturers are also down 27 percent this year, Iberis said, and since January there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of requests for food. Second Harvest fills about 13,000 requests for food each week.

Second Harvest has had no choice but to buy food to bridge the gap and has had to pay the inflated prices like everyone else. Second Harvest has bought $451,417 worth of food so far this year — a roughly 166 percent increase over this time last year. Even when purchasing food, the pantry can’t get always the items it wants because some things just aren’t available, Iberis said.

He expects to spend $1 million by the end of 2022.

BEYOND THE VALLEY

The problem, however, stretches far beyond the Valley, Iberis said.

Second Harvest is a member of the national food bank network Feeding America and in Ohio is part of a 12 food-bank network, the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, all of which are facing similar problems.

The Southeast Ohio Foodbank, serving one of Ohio’s poorest regions, announced in June it was canceling many of its mobile distributions as well as its weekly onsite distributions in Logan, which combined provided food to more than 1,000 people each month.

The Akron Canton Regional Foodbank last week reported an 11 percent increase in pantry visits, with around 19 percent of pantry visitors first-timers.

Ohio Association of Foodbanks Executive Director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt earlier this year asked Gov. Mike DeWine’s office for $50 million in immediate funding through the state controlling board of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to help restock increasingly bare shelves. The email letter from Hamler-Fugitt also seeks an additional $133 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to help food banks meet long-term needs.

The food shortage echoes throughout the rest of the U.S., too.

Katie Fitzgerald, president and chief operating officer for Feeding America, said it doesn’t look like the problem is going to get better overnight.

GOING FORWARD

Iberis said Second Harvest has been working “very diligently” with local legislators and donors to keep food coming in. He hadn’t heard an update on the request for state money.

In the meantime, Second Harvest employees were preparing orders of food for partner organizations as usual.

“This could be an impending crisis that’s just brewing,” Iberis said.

Mararri admitted there always is a thought in the back of the mind: Will there be enough food?

“But No. 1, as a Christian organization, we put our faith in God, and we’ve been able to serve the community with the help of God,” he said.

It’s not all bad news, though — United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley announced this week $40,000 in donations to help feed the children in the United Way’s Success by 6 and After 6 this summer. The Jane F. Lamb Foundation and William M. Neckerman, Jr. Foundation each donated $20,000.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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