Increasing costs, decreasing government aid: Local food bank among many struggling

The Herald-Mail
The Herald-Mail

At a brunch serving eggs, bacon and bagels at the end of July, Pat Kelley, who helps run the St. Mark’s Food Bank, stood in front of tables of volunteers and praised them for their work with the food pantry.

“We couldn’t serve the people we serve without you,” she said.

However, with a growing number of families in the community relying on the food pantry to supplement their needs, the pantry isn't sure it will be able to support them.

At the start of the fiscal year in July, the Maryland Food Bank warned that food pantries across the state would be facing a decrease in the amount of food being received from a federal program. There is also a statewide grant that the St. Mark's Food Bank uses to that purchase food that could expire at the end of the year.

Kelley said she fears this will impact the amount of food the pantry is able to distribute and the number of people it’ll be able to reach. Later at the meeting, she announced new guidelines that the pantry would be decreasing the amount of times families can visit the pantry from twice to once per month.

“If we continue to see these trends of decreasing amounts of federal food, we'll have to adapt and make more changes,” Kelley said. “And we will have to reduce the amount [of food people] get.”

What led the food bank to its current predicament?

St. Mark's is not the only food pantry in Washington County. Many are seeing the same issues and have had to adjust because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After closing down at the beginning of the pandemic, St. Mark's reopened during the summer of 2020 on the sidewalk outside of the church where West Washington Street, West Antietam Street and Washington Avenue meet in Hagerstown.

The pantry prepackaged bags of food and placed them on tables for eligible families, who must have a Community Action Council letter and ID, to take. Since moving back indoors during October of that year, the pantry has been reorganized to decrease the risk of patrons and volunteers getting COVID.

During that time, it saw a big drop in attendance from around 80 families per week to 20 families per week after reopening, according to Kelley.

With an abundance of extra food, the pantry decided to allow clients to receive food twice a month as opposed to just once. Since then, the number of families coming to the food bank has been consistently increasing back to around 80 families per week, according to Kelley.

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Has government food assistance been keeping pace with demand?

However, the amount of food coming into the pantry has recently decreased. The federal Emergency Food Assistance Program allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy food to distribute to states at no cost.

This food is distributed through the Maryland Food Bank, which is forecasting an 18% increase in food distribution and programming costs and an almost doubling in food purchasing costs compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a release.

“Everyone is feeling the pinch right now, and the food bank is not immune to this same economic volatility,” Maryland Food Bank president and CEO Carmen Del Guercio said in a release. “But the financial impact of these rising costs on our operations is enormous because most of the food we purchase is distributed to our statewide network of community partners at no cost to them.”

Over the past two months, St. Mark’s Food Bank has received less food through the USDA program. In July, the pantry received only one order of meat among other items, while its recent August order featured mostly meat and fish, but little of anything else. That's much different from what the pantry has been receiving over the past two years.

While food received through the USDA program can fluctuate from month-to-month, the current decrease might be the new normal for food pantries.

“After so many months of increased food supply due to funding support, it is likely this decrease in food will be felt by our TEFAP partners for some time to come,” Maryland Food Bank director of communications Joanna Warner said in an email, referring to the Emergency Food Assistance Program.

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How is St. Mark's Food Bank adjusting?

Due to the decrease in food received, St. Mark’s Food Bank has recently gone back to only allowing people to receive food once a month. The food pantry may also have to begin paying for food out of its own pocket due to a state grant expiring at the end of 2022.

“Once that runs out, then we're gonna have to buy the food that the federal government doesn't provide to the tune of probably $4,000 a month,” Kelley said. “We're just trying to balance what we have.”

Kelley said that due to the increasing monetary demand, the pantry will have to get creative to continue serving the growing number of people who use it to supplement their food supply.

Some volunteers have reached out directly to those in their neighborhoods to collect food, and some local schools have had food drives that benefit the pantry. The pantry has even called into radio shows to collect food.

“We've [gone on the radio] and gotten a huge outpouring from the community,” Kelley said. “We needed cereal, for example, that's one of the things — sweet cereal — we never get. We called for sweet cereal and I think we got 300 boxes of sweet cereal. It was really tremendous. So, we're just gonna plug away and do what we can and just see what happens, that's all we can do.”

Kelley hopes that the pantry can balance the decrease in supply with community outreach, reiterating its importance to those the pantry serves.

"We've been in the community for over 40 years,” Kelley said. "We need to stay open.”

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