Journal-News food relief: How to help local food pantries keep shelves stocked

More seeking help since start of COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, Village Food Pantry Director Pamela Benson and some volunteer team members will drive from New Miami to Mason. There, 300 boxed Thanksgiving dinners will be waiting for them at Crossroads Church. Then, once they return, 300 selected families from across Butler County will be lined up, drive-thru style, to receive their box.

In one of those cars will be Ann Wullenweber, a county native forced into early retirement after sustaining an injury on the job.

“People like me that have to retire early — you can’t get out into the work field. Commodities [like this] are really special for me,” Wullenweber said. “It’s a holiday that I don’t have to miss, it means a lot. It brings me to tears to think about it.”

>> To donate to Shared Harvest through the Journal-News food relief drive, CLICK HERE

Wullenweber said the donated meal will allow her and her husband to host two dinner guests this Thanksgiving.

The New Miami Village Food Pantry has been working with Crossroads Church on their Thanksgiving Food Drive for over a decade, and it’s not the first time Wullenweber has benefited from the partnership.

Each year, Benson gives the church a low-end and high-end estimate of how many boxes her pantry will need, then Crossroads tells her how many boxes they can supply. Then, volunteers pick up empty boxes with attached shopping lists, fill the boxes up and drop them back off to the church. Local food pantries like Benson’s then pick up and distribute the boxes accordingly.

This year, Crossroads granted 300 boxes to Benson, who had estimated she would have anywhere from 250-300 interested families. In the end, Benson actually had 325 families sign up.

Erin Caproni, the PR director for Crossroads, said each box can feed 10 people. Over the years, the church has set up relationships with many food pantries just like Benson’s, which has allowed the church to reach thousands of folks with efficiency.

“This year, we’re expecting to feed more than 100,000 people in our region,” Caproni said. The church’s region spans from central and southwest Ohio down into northern and western Kentucky.

Part of that 100,000 is Rebecca Humphrey, her husband and their 10 kids, along with their expected child due in April — a Hamilton family who, with so many mouths to feed, has struggled with food’s inflationary rise over the past year.

“It is hard to take care of 11 kids with the times right now,” Humphrey said. “With how big our family is and how big it’s grown, to receive help on Thanksgiving to make sure the kids keep their tradition and get to enjoy the day like every other family does — it brings all of us together.”

Humphrey said she’s a new client at the New Miami Village Food Pantry, as her food stamps have been unable to help her keep up with the rising costs of food, even after cutting back and changing their grocery buying habits.

After running the numbers with her husband, Humphrey found that it was costing them anywhere from $500 to $600 a month more to feed their family than it did a year ago.

“Even with me on food stamps, it’s impossible to last all month with our amount — until we were introduced to that pantry,” Humphrey said. “That pantry has saved us the leftover, every time. Without them, I would be struggling. I would have hungry kids. I wouldn’t even know how to explain it.”

This is Humphrey’s first time receiving a Thanksgiving dinner from the Village Pantry or any other food pantry, for that matter.

“When they told me I was a part of it I was so excited,” she said. “It means a lot that they were able to provide and we weren’t going without.”

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic’s Consumer Price Index [CPI], which measures the change in prices paid by consumers over time, has clocked a major change in the cost of food over the past year. And, month to month, the average cost of food items continues to increase, though that increase is becoming narrower.

The CPI showed that food prices had risen 10.9% from October 2021 to October 2022. There was a 0.4% measured increase in food prices from this September to October, which marks the smallest month-to-month jump since December of 2021.

As a result, Thanksgiving dinners are costing families more this year. The American Farm Bureau Federation found that the cost of a traditional 10-person Thanksgiving meal increased by 20% this year — but noted that the bureau’s study was conducted before major retailers started discounting frozen turkeys across the country.

Grocers in the area are cutting back on their prices in anticipation for the week’s holiday. ALDI, which has four locations in Butler County, has promised to cut prices for Thanksgiving staples back to their 2019 levels, which the company said can mean discounts up to 30%.

Jenifer Moore, a spokesperson for Kroger, said the grocer has promotions that will make the holiday season more affordable for shoppers, including a promotion that allows customers to reuse digital coupons.

“Kroger has also increased total promotions, digital deals, personalized offers and expanded fuel points savings throughout the holidays to keep purchase prices low,” Moore said.

But, some families struggling to afford Thanksgiving meals will have to cut back, said Terry Perdue, the executive director of Shared Harvest, a Feeding America foodbank that is the bulk supplier of low-cost options for partnered local food pantries like Benson’s. He said the rising cost and low supply of food is forcing difficult situations for families and also the pantries that are meant to help those families out.

The Journal-News recently reported that food pantries across the county are noticing upticks in both the amount of food they’re giving away and the amount of clients they’re serving. Those same pantries are also dealing with fewer food options, as Shared Harvest struggles with supply chain issues.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Local food pantries say they need more help now than ever

“Our pantries and ultimately the families we serve are having to make a compromise, if you will,” Perdue said. He said that families on a tighter budget might have to choose a lower-cost whole chicken instead of the traditional turkey, or they might have to modify the menu to avoid foods that Shared Harvest and associated pantries simply just do not have enough of.

“Basic food groups that we’ve had in the past in our warehouse that we supply to our food pantries, are no longer there. And, I’m referencing basic things like green beans and corn,” Perdue said. “We’re exchanging traditions for really what’s available, which is scarcity, at this point.”

Perdue said local food banks tend to see a greater demand around the holidays. And, this year, he’s seeing “a lot more families who do traditionally come to our network, in addition to those who only come around the holidays. So, we’re receiving a larger influx of people.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s programs that are designed to stock food banks like Perdue’s have been unable to fulfill orders throughout the year due to what Perdue calls a “huge snowball effect that’s hitting us all at once.” Farmers and other USDA suppliers have seen food shortages that stem from smaller harvests, labor shortages, and material supply issues; that limited amount of food then goes on the market and chain retailers are able to outbid charitable organizations for that food — there’s not much left over, after that, Perdue said.

“As a result, we have had nearly 60 truckloads of USDA product cancelled without hope of ever receiving it,” Perdue said. Orders placed nearly a year ago were unable to be filled.

“All I can say to you is that we are ill-equipped, for sure,” Perdue said. “If you visit any of our pantries, you’ll see their shelves are low. If you visit our warehouse, you’ll see empty racking. That results in really just fewer options that we can offer to our families.”

Meanwhile, local pantries like Benson’s continue to see a rise in clientele as her pantry alone serves around 300 Butler County families a week. Benson said she used to be able to pick from seven or eight pages of products in Shared Harvest’s catalogs, but recently the pages have dwindled to three.

The 300 Thanksgiving dinners she’ll hand out today is the most her pantry has ever done for this specific drive. She said she told the church, “If you have any extras, just send them our way, if you can.”

“We wouldn’t be able to do this without crossroads, financially,” Benson said. “They have just been a blessing. They have truly just been a blessing.”

To donate to Shared Harvest through the Journal-News food relief drive, visit www.journal-news.com/foodrelief.

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