A troubled economy, the volatile stock market, the impact of Russia's attacks on Ukraine, and continuing uncertainty regarding COVID-19 have contributed to an environment in which charitable donations of food, clothing, hygiene items and other basic needs to many of Wyoming's assistance organizations have decreased considerably, causing concern that many individuals and families may have difficulty locating their next meal.
Adding to the problem for Wyoming's low-income households is the fact that the end of the Wyoming State COVID-19 Emergency Declaration on March 14, 2022 also meant the end of Emergency Allotments to those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Those benefits are ending at a time when basic food and hygiene items are much more expensive than they were before the pandemic, leaving Wyoming's most economically vulnerable individuals struggling to pay 2022 prices on a 2019 budget.
While not every food pantry surveyed for this article was experiencing shortages, the majority who responded stated that they were seeing shortages and were struggling to meet demand. Food pantries affiliated with religious organizations seemed to be receiving a more stable level of donations than those without such affiliations, “but as you well know that could change very quickly” one affiliated provider responded.
“Every food pantry I have talked to is having a shortage, especially of affordable (and) more healthy items,” stated another respondent who wished to remain anonymous. “We went from (providing) 20 food boxes to 120 mid-pandemic, and now (we’re providing) 170 to 200.”
"Our highest number of those in need are the elderly population," says Sierra Mitchell of the Afton Food Pantry, "Our elderly are living off of a fixed income and with such high inflation, food is getting more expensive."
With the consumer price index - the cost of food, housing, utilities, etc. - showing the highest surge of inflation in 40 years, individuals and families are finding themselves tightening their belts in an attempt to respond to the cost of living increase, with many turning to resources they have never needed before.
"We are experiencing a significant increase in the number of people needing clothing and food assistance," says Taylor Grae Albert, Executive Director of Needs, Inc.'s Food Pantry, "We are averaging upward of 90 households per day. Prior to the pandemic we averaged 31 households per day. Over and over we are hearing from people that they have never had to use a food pantry before, but due to the increased cost of groceries and fuel (they are seeking assistance)."
"We have seen an increase in requests for assistance and our food pantry has been extremely busy," says Audrey Apodaca, Social Service Director for The Cheyenne Salvation Army, "Our numbers of food boxes have doubled over the last month or so."
"We're seeing more community members seeking food assistance to stretch their budgets further each month," adds Aditi Desai, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Food Bank of Wyoming, "Our monthly food distribution volume is currently 34% more than pre-COVID-19 levels. We are distributing enough food to provide upwards of 19,500 meals daily across Wyoming." Still, Desai is seeing a decrease in donated food products and is concerned about the limitations in the variety of foods that Food Bank of Wyoming is able to procure and distribute due to product shortages. "The cost for basic goods like eggs, spaghetti, vegetable oil, and beef have increased dramatically, so we are depending more than ever on donations to help us get enough food out the door to help our communities."
The shortage of donations is causing some food pantries to have to make difficult decisions. "We are going through product much faster than we have before," Mitchell stated. "And sadly now the product is much more expensive to purchase for our food pantry. A monetary donation cannot be stretched nearly as far as it once could be." Mitchell fears that the result will be "having to decrease what we give out. We cannot afford to purchase meat, and because it's not getting donated, we will have to eliminate giving out meat to families."
The Reverend Margaret (Peggy) Hotchkiss of St. Barnabas' Episcopal Church (affiliated with The Saratoga Food Pantry) is also concerned about the cost of meat. "We could use ground beef, especially," she says. Hotchkiss was able to rally some support from her community via the local press. "I placed an article about our needs in the Saratoga paper about two months ago and the response from the community was immediate and generous. The article I wrote prompted people who have not previously supported us to get out their checkbooks. And several families purchased food and brought it to the Pantry." Still, she laments, "Since the fall of 2021 we have seen an increase in the number of people who come to the pantry for food. The Food From the Field Initiative gave us some game meat in December, but we are almost out of game meat."
The Saratoga Food Pantry also received some assistance from The Wyoming Hunger Initiative, and expressed their gratitude to the organization and spokesperson Wyoming First Lady Jennie Gordon for their help.
"There are grassroots efforts in every Wyoming county dedicated to reducing hunger and combating food insecurity," Ms. Gordon said recently, "Instead of reinventing the wheel, Wyoming Hunger Initiative was launched in October, 2019 to work to prevent food insecurity by increasing awareness and support for the work of local anti-hunger organizations statewide. Wyoming Hunger Initiative recently partnered with the John P. Ellbogen Foundation to distribute $110,000 in grocery replenishment funds because we know firsthand the challenges that organizations are facing at this time."
These grocery replenishment funds should provide assistance as word spreads about the need for ongoing nutritious donations to assistance organizations across the Cowboy State. "Together," Ms. Gordon encourages, "we can do so much more."
It is hoped that increased awareness will contribute to a return to pre-COVID levels of generosity from both businesses and the public, as the outlook from some organizations seems bleak.
"It won't be just meat we have to look at," Mitchell reminds us of current challenges, "canned items have gone up anywhere from 5% to 37%. Things like canned green beans have gone up over 15%. That all takes a toll."
"Last week our local grocery store called to say that they had 161 dozen eggs that were outdating (expiring)," one food pantry representative who wishes to remain anonymous stated, "They offered them to us for 75 cents per dozen. We accepted the offer and were able to get them all out to our clientele at the pantry. This week I went in to buy a dozen eggs for myself and discovered that they were $3.49 a dozen and were in the process of changing the price to $4.50 a dozen."
"In addition," Desai offered, "our freight costs have increased upwards of 60%, which has increased the overall cost for trucking donated and purchased goods to our distribution center and partners."
Adding to all of this is an overall decrease in donated goods coming from major suppliers. Large and mid-level companies struggling with supply-chain issues are reducing their normal levels of donations of food and other goods, the impact of which is being felt - deeply and painfully - by many of Wyoming's assistance organizations.
"We are currently experiencing shortages in donations both from a local level but also the national level," adds Mitchell. "Stores are donating less and less and that results in product not being available to purchase much cheaper through (food banks) than the local grocery store."
“April was significantly lower (in donations) than normal,” stated one provider who wished to remain anonymous, “and May continues to have somewhat lower-than-normal donations. Food donations from individuals are somewhat low and food donations from the nearby grocery store are somewhat lower.” In addition to the economic variables stated above, this provider speculated that “unpleasant weather patterns may have impacted activity.”
Mary Ann Budenske tells us that Poverty Resistance received over 500,00 pounds of food from their primary supplier in 2019, nearly 800,000 pounds in 2020 and over 400,000 pounds in 2021, but at the current rate they are looking to receive only about 200,000 pounds of food this year. "So yes," Budenske says, "we have seen a serious drop in food. We also serve a hot lunch and went from an average of 30 to over 100 servings a day with the biggest increase coming from January to April of 2022."
The shortage of both corporate and private donations is having an effect on many assistance organizations, and it seems that difficult decisions are forthcoming.
"Donations are lower than normal for this time of year," says Albert.
Joshua Watanabe of Laramie Interfaith agrees. "Incoming food donations are down 30%, food availability and variety through external sources is more difficult and expensive."
"We won't have a choice," Mitchell cautions. "We cannot continue to meet the demand without the donations necessary to keep us going. The end result will be catastrophic (to those in need) because without items to purchase, items to buy, or continued monetary support, there won't be much to give."
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