'Never seen anything like this:' Inflation, high gas prices cause spike in food bank usage in Grand Forks area
The higher cost of groceries, gas and the certain food items being harder to find has created challenges for food banks
GRAND FORKS – As grocery and gas prices rise, more people have been using food banks in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, according to the executive directors at North Country Food Bank, Inc. and St. Joseph’s Social Care.
Susie Novak Boelter, executive director of the North Country Food Bank, Inc. in East Grand Forks, said the agencies North Country works with have seen a rise in the number of people relying on food banks in the past three months. Novak Boelter said there has been around a 30% increase for client visits to those agencies.
The 220 nonprofits North County works with include food shelves, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, senior centers and children programs throughout northwest and west-central Minnesota, along with Grand Forks. Novak Boelter said North Country is similar to a wholesaler as the organization brings in food from national, regional and local donors, including manufacturers, producers and grocers to the warehouse. From there the food is then distributed to the individual organizations.
Novak Boelter said there are always fluctuations throughout the year in food bank usage. The summer months are generally when she sees an uptick in numbers with kids out of school. Now, with higher grocery prices, Novak Boelter said an additional burden is being placed on parents and caregivers.
“We’re coming into the time of year when parents' budgets are already stretched pretty far because now they’re having to feed kids extra meals at home every day ... at a time when inflation is up, gas prices are up, food prices are up,” Novak Boelter said. "It’s a convergence of a whole bunch of things that are going to put a lot of people in crisis situations in order to feed their families this summer."
Mickey Munson, executive director of St. Joseph's Social Care in Grand Forks, said he has also seen a spike in food bank usage in the last three months.
Inflation has not only taken a toll on people in the communities but also on North Country’s and St. Joseph’s operations with the increase in food prices.
“Food costs for us are up between 30% and 50% right now so that’s huge,” Novak Boelter said. “The money we have goes so much less and we can do so much less with it.”
Along with higher food prices comes the challenge of some items being harder to come across. Munson said meat is an item that is tougher to get currently.
St. Joseph’s sets up through the Great Plains Food Bank to do retail rescue where they go to select grocery stores in Grand Forks, including Natural Grocers, a few of the Hugo’s and Target Monday through Thursday to get overstock and end-of-shelf-life items that would possibly be tossed.
“That supplies a lot of our fresh fruits and veggies and some dairy products and a lot of times frozen meat,” Munson said. “We haven’t seen any meat now for probably six months.”
Novak Boelter said certain pasta products have been harder to find, as have quanities of certain foods. Since North Country relies on donated food, Novak Boelter said it’s been challenging when manufacturers are struggling to fill the grocery store shelves.
“When you have manufacturers who can’t even keep grocery store shelves full, they're really not donating excess products to us because they don’t have any,” Novak Boelter said. “So donated food has just gone away at alarming levels right now. It’s just not available to us.”
Along with inflation is the high gas prices, which have spiked across the country also affecting the operations.
“We have trucks on the road every day distributing food to these agency partners and also we’re picking up food from donors or other food bank partners," Novak Boelter said. “Just the cost to run our trucks has doubled and that just has a tremendous impact on what we’re able to do with all the funds and donations we received to help feed people. It just allows us to do so much less.”
Novak Boelter, who has been with North Country for 16 years, and Munson, who has been with St. Joseph’s for three years, said they haven’t seen a situation like this.
“In the food bank industry in our region in more than 25 years we’ve never seen anything like this particular situation,” Novak Boelter said.
While food banks also faced challenges during the pandemic, which Novak Boelter said was a “crisis of a different nature,” those challenges were different in that people who may have never used the emergency feeding system were in need of help.
Novak Boelter said there was funding and food available through various sources to assist with getting through the pandemic, but extra funding through grants and other opportunities from COVID has since gone away.
Novak Boelter said food bank partners are now asking how to best adapt their budgets with current funding levels.
“It’s really a convergence of a bunch of situations happening at the same time that seems to be leading toward something that we don’t quite know what to expect or how to deal with at this point,” she said.
Munson said during these uncertain times St. Joseph’s will continue to spread its mission with the community.
“Now more so than ever is just keeping our name out there. Stating our mission and our purpose and kind of pleading to the need that we have to help others,” Munson said.
Both North Country and St. Joseph’s accept monetary donations. According to Novak Boelter, for every dollar received they can provide enough food for five meals.
“The thing with money is it stores very easily and we can purchase what we want when we need it,” Munson said.
Other than donations, people can volunteer at the food banks, which Novak Boelter said helps spread the word about the mission of North Country.
“People knowing who we are, spreading the word and helping us gain awareness and support through funding and volunteers. That’s huge for us,” Novak Boelter said. “The more money and food we have available, the more people we can feed throughout the region.”