As Families Seeking Help Jumps 34%, Food Pantries Cope with Market Shortages

Last week, Shoreline Soup Kitchen and Pantries experienced a 34 percent increase in families seeking food assistance at pantry locations in Old Saybrook, Westbrook, Clinton, Old Lyme and East Lyme.

“Every week in the last month we have seen an increase across our pantries. Last week was the largest and it was on top of all the previous increases,” said Amy Hollis, executive director of Shoreline Soup Kitchen and Pantries. “We served more than 700 family units and gave out 26,000 pounds of food just last week.”

With the number of people filing for unemployment increasing every week, food pantries across southeastern Connecticut are seeing more families and a greater need for food assistance. In the last week of March alone, End Hunger Connecticut — a statewide anti-hunger organization — received more than five times the typical number of calls to register for SNAP benefits.

“After that week, the next morning, we had another 350 callbacks waiting in our voicemail system, all trying to register for SNAP,” said Molly Stadnicki, the Nutrition and SNAP Outreach Coordinator for End Hunger CT.

As a result, supply hasn’t been able to keep up with the demand.  

“It has been an unprecedented month for us. We saw things ramp up very quickly in March and the need continues to climb,” said Paul Shipman, Senior Director for Marketing, Communications and Government Relations at Connecticut Food Bank. “Stores have been just ravaged. Consumers have been buying a lot of product. So there is less donated food products from food industry partners which are some of our largest donors.”

Boxes of food in Old Saybrook

The Connecticut Food Bank, which supplies food for pantries in six counties across the state, including New London and Middlesex Counties, has seen an enormous drop in donated foods from retailers, distributors and food producers who are all seeing much higher than normal demands on their products, Shipman said.

“What comes from grocery stores are usually the things that are crumpled, nearing expiration or seen as imperfect,” Shipman said. “Less of it is coming, because people are being less choosy as they see items are harder to get in the store and they are less willing to make multiple trips.”

Federal Emergency Food Assistance Program shipments have decreased, or in some cases stopped altogether, compounding the shortages.

Across the country, Shipman said, food banks and pantries are pressuring the federal government to restart the emergency food assistance program, but that will take time as farmers and food producers cope with the increased demand from consumers.

“We have a seen a drop in the incoming food supply which means that we are concerned about keeping our flow of food out consistent with need, especially since the need is going up,” Shipman said. “We are concerned that if the need continues to rise it will be challenging for us, but we are not giving up.”

Instead of relying on donations from individuals or food suppliers, Shipman and Hollis said they have turned to purchasing the majority of the food they provide.

“We are now ordering food that we used to wait on donations for. We are going out into the same marketplace that grocery stores are in and it’s not an uncompetitive place. There are items that are pricier simply because of demand,” Shipman said. “Because demand is so high it is impacting the transportation system, the supply line is moving slower because everybody wants things at the same time.”

For pantry staples, that often means a higher price, a longer delivery time and a longer wait for those in need.

A change in supplies

Although typical pantry staples, like rice and cereal, are in short supply, Hollis said they have been able to continue providing food to all those in need by swapping in other food items.

“The food bank is reporting that they are having some trouble with access to food, so we need to be more creative with what we are using because we may not get the canned vegetables or other goods that we are used to getting,” Hollis said. “The variety is going to change a bit.”

Instead of white rice there may be brown rice or pasta. Instead of the fresh produce that families are accustomed to, Hollis said that they are substituting available varieties of fruit and vegetables.

Volunteers distribute food in Westbrook

“What we would have wanted to put in a bag exactly to have a well-rounded meal is not there, but we are able to continue feeding people,” she said.

Shipman said that families in need may not receive their first choice of fresh produce and dairy, because the shortages at the food pantries reflect the same shortages at grocery stories across Connecticut.

“In food banking so much of what you do is a potluck. You get what is donated and you work with that,” Shipman said. “It’s not always going to be the exact products that everybody demands, but we are still looking to maintain a good supply that’s strong and healthful.”

Fewer options for those in need

In addition to less food, there are fewer places providing it for those in need.

Mobile food pantries operated by United Way of Southeastern Connecticut have been suspended, as has Old Saybrook’s monthly mobile pantry.

An estimated 10 percent of the food pantries across the state supplied by Connecticut Food Bank have simply closed.

“All the cancelations really have impacted the need,” said Cheryl Church, the coordinator of Clinton’s Social Services. “We are getting many more requests for our emergency pantry than usual.”

Pantries that have remained open have been forced to rethink their methods of distribution.

“We have developed a modified service where people drive up and we simply hand them a bag of food,” Hollis said.

There is no more browsing for food, no choices and no way for the food pantries to collect as much information on the guests who need and use their services.

The need for food has also forced some populations more vulnerable to COVID-19 to risk health safety to venture out to grocery stores and pantries.

“Although people are being advised to stay at home, you can’t use SNAP or WIC benefits online,” Stadnicki of End Hunger CT said. “For those who are at risk this is making it incredibly challenging to get food. They are working on this issue at the state and federal level, but it will take time.”

Even registering for SNAP benefits – as those who qualify for unemployment are now eligible to do – takes a significant amount of time.

“SNAP is the first line of defense against hunger, if we can get as many people that qualify for SNAP on SNAP, it won’t overwhelm the food banks,” Stadnicki said. “But the process takes time.” It takes a full month of unemployment before an individual can receive SNAP benefits.

In the meantime, pantries are for many families the only option.

“We are most concerned to make sure that folks have enough, but it is more expensive for us to do it,” Shipman said.

Coping with the cost

As pantries and food banks grapple with the added costs, volunteers and donors are stepping up.

“Typically, on a quarterly basis we get together and look for nonprofits in need. This quarter our committee felt it was right to focus on basic needs, everybody needs food,” said Brian Orenstein, the CEO of Charter Oak Credit Union. “This week we gave $2,500 to 14 different food pantry agencies throughout New London and Windham counties.”

Others are volunteering their time to package and distribute food in a safe, socially distanced manner.

“The fact that 90 percent of our food pantries are still open is impressive when you consider that many of them are all volunteers and many of the volunteers are retired individuals in the at-risk category,” Shipman said. “In their own way, the folks that are keeping these pantries open are heroes. They are protecting the people they serve and the people who serve them.”

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