ROCHESTER — Standing in the protein section of Rochester’s food shelf this week, Virginia Merritt pointed to a shelf strewn with jars of peanut butter and cans of chili peppers.
“See how there are no shelves at the ends? It used to be full,” said Merritt, executive director of Channel One Regional Food Bank.
Behind her, a crate that once kept a variety of frozen meats now only offers one type of fish.
“We’re rearranging the shelves to try to give that appearance of plenty, because we don’t want people to worry that there isn’t enough food,” she said.
This sleight of hand aims to hide the fact that there is less food than a few months ago. Meanwhile, more people are turning to the food aisle because inflation means they’re paying more for basic expenses, Merritt said.
“You’re going to pay your rent or your mortgage, you’re going to put gas in your car, you’re going to pay for child care,” she said. “And then what goes further down the line where people skimp is the food.”
This mismatch between food supply and demand is caused by a multitude of global economic pressures colliding simultaneously: inflation and high gas prices, so more and more people are using the food shelves to make ends meet. Supply chain issues mean there are fewer donations from food manufacturers. And federal supports meant to keep people financially afloat during the pandemic are expiring.
“We could be heading into what could be the hungriest summer in history,” said Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland.
“Our supply chains are very tight. And so some of these staples that we get – which are in great need and in high demand on the food aisle – they’re just hard to find.
“It just hits harder”
Visits to Channel One have increased nearly 40% since January – more than the early days of the pandemic, Merritt said. In May, the food shelf surpassed 6,000 shoppers, a record for the nonprofit.
Some are first-time visitors.
Amanda Maroo, who lives in Rochester, is one of them. She has been out of work for long periods during the pandemic and is now trying to use her psychology degree to develop a more stable career. Inflation and gas prices are affecting her ability to shop for groceries as she once did.
“With a start almost at square one, again, with anything costing more, it hits harder,” Maroo said.
Miranda Schmitz, a working mother of four who also lives in Rochester, recently returned as a food aisle customer.
Schmitz says she’s noticed there are fewer choices at Channel One than before the pandemic.
“I was really shocked. There were about 10 loaves of bread,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t even want to take bread, what if someone needs it more than me? ‘”
The pressure on food shelves is worse now than it was at the start of the pandemic, O’Toole said, in part because food supports are disappearing.
During the pandemic, people like Schmitz, who are on the verge of needing free food, first qualified for federal food assistance benefits when the SNAP program expanded eligibility. This temporary expansion is now complete.
“This is a massive decrease, a premature decrease in that level of support at a time when we’re starting to see the need increase to levels beyond 2020,” O’Toole said.
During that time, she said the government-provided food for the Second Harvest area has shrunk by more than 50 percent. And food donated by food manufacturers is also down, pointing to global supply chain issues.
This is especially true for high-demand foods like meat, O’Toole said.
A specialized room at the Second Harvest food bank where they can thaw meat just enough to separate it for distribution in the area hasn’t been used in months.
“We’ve done our job to increase our capacity, our capabilities, our supply – and things like (the cold room) sit idle just when our community needs it most.”
Inflation and supply chain issues
Food banks across the state are feeling this crisis.
Customers at Second Harvest North Central Food Bank in Grand Rapids, Minn., told executive director Susan Estee they tried to find what they needed at local stores, but groceries had become too expensive. They then drive miles and miles to the nearest big box store only to find that those stores are out of basic items.
“Now they’ve spent the gas money, and now they’re on the food aisle,” Estee said.
Rising food prices and supply chain challenges go both ways, Estee said. Food manufacturers are selling everything they can to stores, which means fewer food donations on the food aisle. The food departments then spend more money buying food for their customers.
Estee said more government food donations would help. Meanwhile, O’Toole wants the Minnesota Legislature to approve $23 million from the state budget surplus to help food shelves.
Back in Rochester, Merritt said the community had been generous during the worst of the pandemic. But those community donations have plummeted.
“As we return to a normal way of life, do people remember that their neighbors are still struggling?”
This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of information to our readers. Learn learn more about the news services used by the FCC here.