The shelves, pallets and freezers of St. Joseph Pantry in Cheyenne, Wyo., have been looking pretty barren lately. Eva Estorga lists what she has in stock.
“There’s always breakfast, soups, fruits, vegetables, pasta,” she said.
Supplies are sourced from an extensive network of grocery stores, individuals and government programs. Estorga coordinates operations with around 70 volunteers. The warehouse is the size of a soccer field and serves approximately 150 families per day.
“It’s a way of caring for the community in a way that sometimes no one else does,” Estorga said. “We can put some kind of food on their table.”
But Estorga’s job has recently become more stressful as demand at St. Joseph’s has skyrocketed. Inflation drove up food prices and pandemic relief programs came to an end. This has made it harder for Wyoming residents to make ends meet.
Several state pantries have seen customer numbers double since the pandemic began, according to the Casper Star Tribune. Some people who had never needed food aid before this summer are coming for the first time.
“The more people we have, of course, the more food we need, because we give so much and we don’t get so much,” Estorga said.
St. Joseph’s is a 100% drive-through operation. Cars often line up around the block. Many online customers share similar stories.
“I started coming here because I was going through some tough times,” said Joanne, who preferred not to share her last name. “It just helps me go from paycheck to paycheck.”
“It doesn’t take much to go through $100 worth of food stamps,” Scott Leyo said. “Having a place like this just saved lives.”
“Everything is so expensive, [I] can’t afford it. The price of meat is ridiculous,” said Raymond Mauch.
Most people get basic foods in their boxes: canned food, protein, and produce. But Estorga fears it may have to downsize in the near future.
The food bank buys things to fill in the gaps when donations aren’t enough. In a normal month, they would spend around $12,000. In August, they spent over $20,000, but it’s still not enough. Two weeks ago, Estorga spent $1,000 on jelly alone. It was gone in four days.
“We can’t buy that many, so people will see less in their boxes,” Estorga said. “I don’t think the end of the tunnel is near. I think it’s going to be tough for a while. »
Rachel Bailey directs the Wyoming Food Bank, a major provider for more than 150 partners statewide. She said shortages are pervasive across the country and it has been particularly difficult to service such a large area.
“When we travel such long distances across the state, to rural communities, you know, those fuel prices and those transportation costs really add up,” Bailey said.
Inflation has a significant impact on Bailey’s bottom line. A candy corn truck, for example, cost him just over $8,000 in 2021. Now it’s over $13,000. Potato prices are up 71% over the past year.
But that’s not the only thing limiting supplies.
“One of the biggest challenges we have right now is a 52% decrease in the USDA’s emergency food assistance program,” she said.
The emergency food aid program (TEFAP) provides food pantries across the country. During the pandemic, it received a huge boost from federal COVID relief funds.
But this summer, that money is running out – at the worst time. The US Department of Agriculture provided about 40% of the Wyoming food bank’s supply. Now it’s down to 23%.
“I think the public needs to be aware that this is happening – that there is a decrease in donations and there is an increased need,” Bailey said. “Because what we really need from our communities right now is support.”
Bailey wants Congress to spend more on food aid next year. The association Feed America also advocates for increased funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). They argue that new investments to alleviate food insecurity could help one in ten Mountain West residents facing hunger.
In a note sent earlier this week, the USDA said it “expects increased funding for TEFAP food entitlements, due to significant inflationary changes.” Congress will have to approve any budget increases early next year.
Back in St. Joseph’s, construction worker Dominic Fonseca is in his turquoise van with his Pomeranian in the passenger seat. He is disabled and diabetic, and said health costs have added up. So he comes here twice a month for a source of healthier meals.
“What I do with what I can’t eat since I have diabetes is pass it on to friends and neighbors and family if they want it,” he said.
Fonseca hopes others online — and especially those who don’t visit pantries — pass on what they can.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana , KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations throughout the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the public broadcasting company.