If you’ve gone grocery shopping recently, then you know—like everyone else—that the cost of food has gone up a lot over the last year. In fact, the cost of food prepared at home was 13.5 percent higher in August than the same time last year, making it difficult for households across the Ninth District to put food on the table.
Staff and volunteers stock shelves at Joyce Uptown Foodshelf in Minneapolis. Haley Chinander/Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis 2022.
Households suffer these higher costs in different ways. In a recent Minneapolis Fed survey of workers and job seekers, a woman from northern Montana said the high grocery prices this year have pushed her family “away from eating fresh foods” and toward eating “boxed and canned foods because they are cheaper.”
“We also don't eat as much as we once did. Meal sizes have been cut in half due to cost,” she added.
Survey takers from Minnesota, Montana, and North and South Dakota reported that securing food was one of their top three concerns this summer, and over 60 percent indicated that they have reduced their consumption of food prepared at home or have made substitutions in response (Figure 1).
“We eat a lot less protein and have been buying more pasta and rice,” another Montana survey respondent wrote. “I have been using our local food bank for the first time in 20 some years.”
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Food shelf need increases across Upper Midwest and Montana
Food scarcity rates, which measures the share of people who did not have enough food to eat in the last week, have been higher on average in Ninth District states through August of this year than they were last year or even in 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data.
Inflation has also affected more than just food, and higher overall costs of living have coincided with federal and state assistance programs returning to pre-pandemic levels after a period of strong support. As a result, many people in the Ninth District have turned to food shelves for help.
Second Harvest Heartland, a Twin Cities–based food bank, which partners with 388 food shelves and meal programs across central and southwestern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, has been on the front lines of distributing food during the pandemic.
While the pandemic created a lot of hardship, especially early on, it did not spark a significant rise in food shelf visits. Visits to Second Harvest Heartland’s partner food shelves were relatively stable from 2019 through 2021. However, that changed this year, with total visits through June some 40 percent higher compared with the same period last year (Figure 2).
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At the Joyce Uptown Foodshelf in Minneapolis, a partner pantry of Second Harvest Heartland, the number of people seeking food assistance through August of this year more than doubled from pre-pandemic levels, to over 6,200 visits—almost an annual record with four months of the year left.
Matthew Ayres, executive director of Joyce Uptown Foodshelf, noted that many visitors this year are first-timers.
“Demand has increased significantly, on dual fronts,” Ayres said. “We’ve got really low-income shoppers that have always needed food shelves, and now we've got all these new folks, often middle class, that have never had to go to food shelves before but are here now because they’re getting squeezed by high food prices."
While Joyce Uptown Foodshelf is appointment-based, people can still stop by for smaller emergency bags, which include mostly government commodity food.
“We were doing like five or six emergency bags a day last summer on average. We're doing around 18 to 20 per day now,” Ayres added.
Minnesota and Wisconsin are not the only states with food shelves experiencing a surge in demand for assistance this year.
Feeding South Dakota, a nonprofit food bank which operates mobile food pantries out of Sioux Falls, Pierre, and Rapid City, reported that the number of visitors to their mobile distributions across the state increased over 30 percent in August compared with last year. In North Dakota, the Bismarck Emergency Food Pantry reported a similar increase in visitors.
The Census Household Pulse Survey suggests that food scarcity in Montana has been higher on average than in other Ninth District states. Data from 158 food shelves in the Montana Food Bank Network show that total visits have increased nearly 60 percent this August compared with the same month last year.
The Flathead Food Bank in Kalispell has seen an influx of visitors this year amid rapidly rising housing costs in the area, an issue that has hit much of western Montana hard over the last few years. Visits to the food shelf have risen nearly 150 percent from August 2021 to this past July, and the number of homeless people served at their location has reportedly doubled in recent months, according to Executive Director Jamie Quinn.
“Inflation and high housing costs have really changed the playing field for a lot of people,” said Quinn. “The price to live here has become so high that it’s forced a lot of people into needing a food bank for the first time.”
Further south, August visits to Helena Food Share rose 70 percent compared with those in August 2021. People visited the in-store and mobile pantries nearly 3,000 times in August, which was the highest number of visits they have experienced in the last three years.
Bruce Day, executive director for the organization, attributed some of the lower demand in the first year of the pandemic to an influx of federal and state support programs.
“We know that pandemic support checks provided additional income to many families in need, as well as increases in SNAP and unemployment benefits,” Day explained. “Support for school meals increased, providing free breakfast and lunch for anyone. The USDA’s Farmers to Families program also made a difference, providing food assistance outside of our normal pantry distribution.”
Many of the programs Day listed had ended or decreased their benefit levels in Montana by the fall of 2021.
Food shelves caught in crossfire of rising prices and rising demand
As demand for food assistance rises, food shelves have been struggling to afford to buy as much food as they have in the past. As a result, empty shelves have been more common this summer.
“Lines are so long, sometimes up to two hours before they open. By the time I get there or am able to get in, there isn't much left,” commented a survey respondent from Missoula, Montana. “Going every day only to find out there's nothing left is not an option.”
Bread loaves retrieved from a local grocery store instead of thrown away sit on a shelf at Joyce Uptown Foodshelf. Food rescue efforts have increased as a way to offset high food costs. Haley Chinander/Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis 2022
The Joyce Uptown Foodshelf in Minneapolis stopped taking new appointments starting in July because they have struggled to keep up with the high demand.
“We're swamped, completely underwater,” Ayres said. “We've got a very small budget, and we're going to spend about $140,000 this year just purchasing food, which is about up from just $80,000 last year.”
In Fargo, North Dakota, The Great Plains Food Bank works with more than 200 partner food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens throughout North Dakota and Clay County, Minnesota. Over the last fiscal year, the number of people they served actually declined as they have had less food to distribute.
According to Jared Slinde, the food bank’s communications manager, this was due in part to the end of the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program in 2021, which had purchased food to send to food banks free of charge, and to more recent challenges with its food supply.
“Inflation has caused a strain on the food industry where they have less to donate to organizations like ours. We are having a difficult time getting food into the warehouse and therefore less to distribute,” Slinde said.
Hunger persists as inflation fails to slow
The latest Consumer Price Index report has shown no let up in either grocery prices or other basic needs like shelter and medical care. Cutting back on food is often the most feasible option for many families who can’t afford to miss a rent payment or lapse on their utility bills.
“My rent has gone up and I don’t qualify for food stamps,” said a western Montana mother in the Minneapolis Fed survey. “In order for my special-needs daughter to be able to eat, I only eat every other day.”
As more people face food scarcity this year, Jamie Quinn at the Flathead Food Bank in Kalispell hopes that the stigma around needing help at food shelves is lessened.
“Everybody tends to have this narrow picture in their brain of who uses food shelves, but it’s really much broader,” observed Quinn. ”It's a grandmother; it's a working family who just can't make ends meet because rent is too high; it’s your neighbor that is coming to get food. Everyone utilizing our food shelf are just people trying to get through these tough conditions.”
Back in Minneapolis, at the Joyce Uptown Foodshelf, Ayres sees the strain on visitors. “We have people cry in here every day. Sometimes they cry because they’re just grateful to get food, but also because they're just overwhelmed with having to be here,” Ayres said. “It's really difficult to see the stress that people are under.”
Unfortunately, Ayres doesn’t see demand slowing down anytime soon. The waitlist for appointments remains weeks out.
“I expect to continue to have record demand for at least the next year, possibly multiple years. I just can't see a time when we'd have like this Jubilee where everything goes back to normal,” Ayres said.