Meals banks see Thanksgiving ‘good storm’ of excessive demand, inflation


Second Harvest Heartland workers are handing out groceries in a recent truck-to-trunk event. With the rise in Covid-19 cases in Minneapolis, so too is the demand for food, said CEO Allison O’Toole.

Courtesy: Second Harvest Heartland

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic last year caused millions of Americans to wait in long lines for food aid in the face of an unprecedented economic shock.

Now, just before the second Thanksgiving since the pandemic began, blackboards say they are still seeing high demand for help from people coping with food insecurity.

These include boards in Minnesota, which posted a new record high during the vacation.

“Things really aren’t that different from a year ago,” said Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, one of Feeding America’s grocery aisles that serves 59 counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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The organization, which is more than two decades old, saw the number of people seeking food assistance increase by 30%, O’Toole said.

These calls for help come amid other challenges for the Minnesota community, O’Toole said, including an uneven economic recovery and a “racial starvation gap” that leaves colored communities twice as likely to be food insecure than their white neighbors.

In addition, high inflation and supply chain problems make paying for and sourcing goods difficult.

“It’s the perfect storm a year later, which is very sobering,” said O’Toole.

Government data suggests signs that the economic recovery is underway. The latest weekly jobless claims fell to their lowest level since 1969.

However, there is also evidence that many individuals and families are still struggling. Nearly 20 million adults – 9% of all adults in the United States – said their households sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the past seven days, according to government surveys conducted between September 29 and October 11.

Families with children fare worse. 12% said they didn’t eat enough because they couldn’t afford it.

Food prices rose 4.8% year over year in October, according to the latest data. This is offset by an overall rise in prices of 5%, the fastest since 1990, including food and energy.

Monthly child tax breaks have helped alleviate food shortages among families with children, according to the Center for Budgetary and Policy Priorities.

Ongoing stimulus efforts – including one-off government controls and eviction moratoriums – have also helped ease the financial burden over the past year, along with falling unemployment, said Michael Flood, president and CEO of Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.

In 2020, the organization’s food distribution increased 145%, he said. However, this month it is still more than 100% above pre-pandemic volume.

We are still seeing quite a lot of demand for food and we are doing what we can to provide food to the people.

Michael Flood

President and CEO of the Los Angeles Regional Food Ban

1,500 cars were attracted to a food distribution event last weekend.

“We are still seeing quite a lot of demand for food and we are doing what we can to bring food to the people,” Flood said.

Much of how well the areas have recovered depends on their Covid-19 infection and hospitalization rates.

But two big trends for 2021 – inflation and supply chain scarcity – have created far-reaching challenges.

In Minnesota, the price of ground beef has risen 25%, making it “right now” for Second Harvest Heartland, according to O’Toole. Food prices are up 5% year over year, she said.

Sourcing food, most of which was donated, was more of a challenge for the Second Harvest Heartland teams. They’ve received almost no meat lately, one of their most requested items.

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank is hosting a local drive-through distribution of food. According to President and CEO Michael Flood, the organization is still seeing a sharp surge in demand for food amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Courtesy: Los Angeles Regional Food Bank

Other products, especially “culturally related” food ingredients like soy sauce, sriracha or jasmine rice, have become harder to come by and more expensive. There were long delays with other orders.

“It’s super unsafe and unstable,” said O’Toole.

Supply chain issues have also impacted the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, particularly regarding driver shortages and transportation.

“We found that the longer it takes to remove something,” said Flood.

The Los Angeles regional food bank plans in early 2022 to look like what it is experiencing now.

“It’s hard to look at the second quarter because there are too many variables,” Flood said.

For blackboards, so heavily dependent on donations, a large part of their prospects depends on how much money they raise in the remaining weeks of the year.

Even when people can’t give a financial gift, they can help by volunteering or raising awareness that it’s okay to ask for help, O’Toole said.

“The food insecurity is solvable,” said O’Toole. “That’s the great thing about this problem.

“We know how to do that,” he added. “We need the resources and community commitment to do this.”

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