Justine Burke couldn’t believe what she was seeing — or, really, what she wasn’t.
It was late April, and Burke, the vice president of marketing at Metropolitan Ministries, was visiting the warehouse where the Tampa-based charity stores food for hundreds of thousands of meals it distributes. Where she expected to see heaps of nonperishables, there was instead a great deal of negative space.
“I said to the crew in the warehouse, ‘Is this real? Is this how empty the shelves really are?’” she recalled. “And they said, ‘Yeah.’”
The scene was a symptom of the high-and-still-rising cost of groceries. By the end of March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “food at home” prices were 10 percent higher than a year prior, the largest such increase since 1981.
Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Forecasting, said costs have been driven by inflation, climbing gas prices and a supply chain that still hasn’t recovered from being rattled during the pandemic. That’s on top of the kinds of crises that make food markets generally volatile, like drought (like those across the Americas of late) and war (like the one in Ukraine).
Requests for food, housing, rent and utility assistance have gone up by 500 percent since last fall, Burke said. Thomas Mantz, the president and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay, said his organization estimates there are as many as 1 million food insecure people in the region, down from a pandemic peak of 1.5 million but still above the pre-pandemic mark of about 700,000. Burke and Mantz said current demand marks an increase from mid-2021, when the economic fallout of the pandemic seemed to have stabilized.
It’s not just grocery prices pushing people into food insecurity, the food banks noted. Tampa Bay’s skyrocketing rental market has been particularly damaging for families on the edge. The cost of gasoline rose nearly 20 percent in March. But when families are forced to choose what to cut, food banks are often the first place they turn.
“You can’t negotiate the price at the pump,” Mantz said. “You can’t negotiate the price of your rent. Food is the one thing.”
But costs have also shifted the landscape for the food banks. The supply chain isn’t as rocky as it was at some points last year, Mantz said. But Feeding Tampa Bay, which relies on donations from brand names and grocery chains, still has to buy a lot of food, something it had never done before the pandemic. Burke said donations to Metropolitan Ministries have been down this year, which she ascribes to the high price of groceries: Those who would normally give extras don’t have anything extra to give.
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“We’re going to have to go out and buy food, and we will,” she said. “But it would be better if the food was donated, and we could use the monetary donations for helping people with rent and helping people with all those other things, and our residential programs.”
Last fall, with prices climbing, food banks were already bracing themselves for a challenging holiday season. Metropolitan Ministries had anticipated serving 33,000 families around Thanksgiving and Christmas, still well above average but down from the previous year. It wound up serving more than 40,000, about what it did in 2020. The need left the food bank without the surplus it relies on to get through the donation-lean early months.
Mantz said the steady increase in need he’s seeing now reminds him less of the early days of the pandemic, when there was an abrupt spike in food insecurity, than it does the Great Recession. It took nearly 10 years for food insecurity rates to return to what they were before the financial meltdown, he said. With the chaos wrought by the pandemic, the next round of recovery could take even longer.
Snaith, the economist, said he doesn’t expect groceries to get more affordable in the next year.
“I think there’s another crop, if you will, of food inflation that’s already in the ground,” he said.