Food aid groups in Alaska say needs are approaching early pandemic levels as relief money ends and prices rise

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Volunteers Jill Smythe, left, and Lois Gray sort food for the agency’s shopping area May 18 at the Food Bank of Alaska in Anchorage. The Agency Commercial Area is where partner agencies can obtain food to distribute through their own programs. (Loren Holmes/DNA)

More Alaskans need help with food as prices soar at the gas pump and on grocery store shelves, while pandemic relief dollars dry up, according to local suppliers.

“Most of our partners say they see the need escalating over the past one to two months,” said Cara Durr, head of advocacy and public policy at the Food Bank of Alaska, which distributes food. at some 150 agencies statewide. .

Agencies are now seeing demand approaching what it reached in the early months of the pandemic, when providers saw an increase of around 75% – which at the time reflected levels of need. record, said Durr.

The Food Bank of Alaska operates a series of mobile food pantries, and the number of households served at each one has been trending up lately, Durr said.

Although the food bank does not yet have figures for May 2022, the number of households served in food pantries has increased from 1,926 in February to 3,738 in April. In April 2020, they served around 3,400 households, before peaking for that year in October with over 4,700 households served.

Cara Durr, head of advocacy and public policy, gives a tour of the new Food Bank of Alaska building May 18 in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes/DNA)

“It’s easy to think, ‘Well, things are back to normal and there are tons of jobs available,'” Durr said. “But for people who have lost their wages, and who may have already been struggling, it takes a while to get out of that hole.”

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Irene Brooks is a community worker at the Copper River Native Association Food Bank, the only food bank in the greater Copper River Basin, serving customers from Eureka to McCarthy. Brooks said the number of customers right now is the highest ever.

People tell him that even though they have never used food banks in the past, the prices are so high that they cannot afford to feed their families.

“People have literally told me that without food banks, they and their families would have gone hungry,” she said.

Groceries up 10% with the end of rental assistance

Several factors may contribute to this increased demand for food aid at this time.

Over the past year, the price of groceries has increased by 10.8%, while the prices of meat, poultry, fish and eggs have increased by 14.3% – the strongest increase over one year since 1979, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Inflation is important right now, said state economist Neal Fried. But Fried said that may not have been the main reason people’s incomes were stretched. Pandemic relief money, including rental assistance, is also running out right now, and that could contribute even more to that strain, Fried said.

“Transfer payments from the government of all kinds have declined significantly and are likely disproportionately impacting low-income households,” Fried said.

People receiving food are telling those working at Lutheran social services that their money just doesn’t go far enough at the store right now, said Alan Budahl, executive director there.

Additionally, many have high utility costs and are facing closures. He says he receives between 20 and 30 calls a day for rental assistance.

“I tell them, ‘Well, use your money to keep your utilities and pay the rent, and it’s easier for us to feed you,'” he said.

Durr of the Food Bank of Alaska said the level of need in food pantries makes sense, given the prices people are currently paying for things like fuel. Food is a relatively easy resource for getting help, as opposed to something like getting housing assistance, which is more difficult, she said.

Often when people’s budgets are tight, food is something they can afford and the last thing they give up when they get back on their feet.

“They could come to a pantry and get a week’s worth of food,” Durr said. “It’s a big help in the budget.”

“Exactly the same figures as in autumn 2020”

Last fall, demand slowed, said Greg Meyer, manager of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank in Soldotna. But recently it has increased, he says.

The food bank serves several remote areas where needs are particularly high at this time. And not only are food prices high, but the cost of fuel has also increased, which also makes it difficult to pick up the food, he said.

At the same time, needs are growing, Meyer said the organization doesn’t have the same capacity to serve as it did at the start of the pandemic, after some CARES Act programs expired. They have less food and variety than before.

“Our numbers have gone up,” Meyer said. “But some of our programs that were in response to the pandemic have disappeared, so our ability to deliver as much has diminished.”

Boxes of food lie on pallets at the St. Francis House Food Pantry, run by Catholic Social Services in Anchorage, on May 24. (Emily Mesner/DNA)

On a recent Tuesday, cars lined up to receive food from the St. Francis House Food Pantry in East Anchorage. Robin Smith, a volunteer who helped pack boxes of food for distribution, said they used to collect the equivalent of four pallets of boxes. Lately, she says, that number has increased to six and sometimes almost seven pallets.

“If you had asked us three months ago, it wouldn’t look like this,” said Claire Lubke, who runs the pantry, as she walked along the line of cars towards the staff handing out boxes.

In the first week of May, they served 400 households. By mid-May, they were serving 430. By the third week of the month, that number had risen to 480 households. They used to see some 70 households passing by each day the pantry was open. Now it’s up to 120.

Lubke said demand in their pantry was heaviest in the fall of 2020 after people were out of work, COVID-19 relief money hadn’t started and people ran out of supplies. . That’s when the numbers peaked.

“We are now at exactly the same numbers as we were in fall 2020,” she said.

St. Francis House Food Pantry program director Claire Lubke, left, talks to communications and development manager Tricia Teasley as they wait for volunteers to arrive to work on garden starters for their social service clients Anchorage Catholics. (Emily Mesner/DNA)
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