Inside a New Seasons Market grocery store in Portland.

The cost of food has increased by 10% according to the Consumer Price Index. Food banks are reporting higher costs to help provide food to communities and an increase of use for their services.

Kate Davidson / OPB

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Prices at the grocery store are rising. According to the Consumer Price Index, the cost of food has increased by 10% since last year. As the cost of a meal is going up, how does this affect those already facing food insecurity? To answer this question and more we’ll hear Susannah Morgan, CEO of the Oregon Food Bank. She joins us to share what she’s seeing now.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. With inflation at the highest rate it’s been in more than forty years, and no end to the rise in prices in sight, we were curious what all this means for hunger and food insecurity in Oregon right now. So we’ve called up Susannah Morgan, who is the CEO of the Oregon Food Bank. Susannah, welcome back.

Susannah Morgan: Thank you. So glad to be here.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for how the level of need you see right now, broadly, how it compares to the beginning of the pandemic?

Morgan: So we are in a historic high for hunger in Oregon. The numbers are that in 2019, pre-pandemic, 860,000 people in Oregon and Southwest Washington asked for food at least once during the year. In 2020, that number was 1.7 million, or nearly double. In 2021, that number came down to 1.2 million, so less than the peak but still a lot higher than pre-pandemic. The first part of this year we were seeing it go down again, but that has turned, and we are on the upswing once again.

Miller: How do you explain that upswing this year?

Morgan: We mostly think that it is a combination of rising food prices, inflation, gas prices ‒ all of these small but significant changes to daily living make the biggest impact on people at the low end of the income scale, combined with the ending of federal benefits that came about because of the pandemic. Now, those endings are staggered, but as you recall early in the pandemic, we were getting $1,200 checks, there was additional unemployment, there was additional money for SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], there were a number of different supports and staggered over time, those supports have been taken away. So those two things together are coming together as a whammy for our neighbors who are living with hunger or just falling into hunger for the first time.

Miller: Do the overall trends you’re talking about, are these nationwide trends or is there something that is specifically ‘Oregonian’ about the picture you’ve just presented?

Morgan: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I think the answer is that we are seeing, in terms of rising need, the same trends that we are seeing nationally. What is different about Oregon is that we have been – thanks to an amazing community, and amazing network of food assistance sites – we have been able to continue to meet the need with existing food assistance sites. So, your listeners will remember that early in the pandemic, there were stories from Houston and Pittsburgh and New York City about football fields, lines of cars waiting for food assistance. We never saw that in Oregon because our system didn’t break. Our food assistance system was strong enough and resilient enough to meet the need at the height of the pandemic and it’s continuing to meet the need today.

Miller: When you say it was strong enough, it was just more distributed? There were more sites that were ready to go, or there were more people who were, or businesses who were in the habit of donating food? What was it that actually worked in Oregon?

Morgan: It’s the triumph of local leadership. So, Oregon Food Bank is at the heart of a network of 21 regional food banks and 1,400 food assistance sites, food pantries, and meal sites across the state. And we run five of the regional food banks, but most of that broad network is run locally, with local leadership. But we have 40 years of collaborating and working together and supporting each other and building best practices together.

So when the pandemic hit, each site, each local group of mostly volunteers had to come together and say, ‘Are we staying open? How are we adapting to pandemic conditions to keep our volunteers and the people seeking food assistance, safe? How are we gonna make this work in these new circumstances?’ And at the height of the pandemic, only 5% of those sites shut down. So to me, that is a triumph of local leadership connected into this system of support that is the statewide Oregon Food Bank network.

Miller: I want to play a voicemail that came in a couple days ago by you. So let’s have a listen.

Caller: My name is Elizabeth Lee and I volunteer at FISH West Vancouver Food Pantry in Vancouver, Washington, and with the rising prices, what we’re seeing is … back in the old days, Food Pantries and Food Banks saw people come in who had lost their jobs or had a medical bill, had an unfortunate thing happened to them. But now what we’re seeing is people coming in have two income families, and working full time and just can’t quite make it. So they’re coming in for a little bit of extra help. We’re seeing our numbers of food that we’re passing out, food boxes and food stamps, families coming to visit, we’re seeing our numbers of families coming to visit up 40-50% in just the last six months.

Miller: Susannah Morgan, what have you been hearing from Pantries that you work with?

Morgan: Yeah, there is definitely a rising tide of need. William Temple House, one of our great partners in Northwest Portland, told me last week that they were seeing 34% more people. So that really resonates with your caller from Vancouver. I would say that pre-pandemic, 50% of the people who were accessing food assistance had someone in their household who was working. So it’s just true that pre-pandemic, the majority of people asking for food assistance were what you might call the working poor, our neighbors who are working but don’t make enough to pay all of their bills, and that is just exacerbated when prices rise.

Miller:  The sense I got from that voicemail is that, at least in Vancouver, and perhaps in other places, some people who are dealing with food insecurity now might be dealing with that for the first time. If that’s the case, can it be difficult for people to ask for or to accept help?

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Morgan: It really can. It really can. We have a model in our head that says it’s great to be a giver. It’s great to be the person who’s asked for help, and there’s something wrong with being the person who asked for help. So it’s great to be the person who’s giving, but not the person who’s receiving. The paradox in that is, in order to be a giver, there has to be a receiver, right? So what I ask all our communities to think about is that we’re all going to go through times in our lives when we are the givers and we’re all going to go through times in our lives when we’re the receivers. And so if this is a time in your life when you need some help, ask. Go to oregonfoodfinder.org, all of the food assistance sites are located there across the state and in Vancouver, Washington. Get the help you need. We know that you will help again when your circumstances change.

Miller: How much have your costs gone up the cost of procuring food at the wholesale level?

Morgan: Yeah, a lot.

Miller: It’s not just a question of … I mean, obviously, in grocery stores, they have for retail, but you’ve told us before, you don’t want people to give you a jar of peanut butter. You’d rather, money, because you can buy a pallet of jars of peanut butter. But even for you, you’ve seen large increases?

Morgan: Absolutely. So, our fuel costs are up 30% since December. The cost of freight, to bring in a truckload, is up 16%. We’re paying about 12% on average more for food purchases in order to keep up with demand. As a concrete example, pre-pandemic, a truckload of peanut butter cost about $34,000. That same truckload today is well over $40,000.

Miller: Have those increases all across the board, and it’s worth noting, this tracks probably with many people’s experiences, that fuel prices have actually gone up more than food in a lot of ways, but has all this added together meant that you have access to different kinds of food now than before?

Morgan: It does mean that we are trying to use our resources wisely. We have never said, ‘We must have canned tuna fish.’ We have always said, ‘We must have some kind of protein.’ So we’re having to get creative about what kind of proteins are available, how far away they are, what the cost of both the purchase and the transportation to us. And yes, we are purchasing more food than we ever have in order to keep up with demand. And we have been so grateful for the state of Oregon’s support in those food purchases.

Miller: What about donations of food from other buyers of food? Has that kept pace with the need? Or if all those restaurants or whoever, if they’re paying a lot more as well, does it mean they have less to give out? Less excess?

Morgan: Yes, it does. We saw a big decrease in the amount of donations early in the pandemic because grocery stores and the supply chains that supply grocery stores just didn’t have extras, right? And then we found new donors in the supply chains that were supplying restaurants as they were shut down, so we had new donors. And then as restaurants reopened, those supply chains went away. So yes, it is true that the excess in the system, food banking has always relied on the edible but non-salable food from the growers, the manufacturers to the retailers, that system has been less abundant because the demand has been higher.

Miller: So what has that meant for you, practically speaking? I mean, if you’re getting less food from those sources, do you have enough?

Morgan: Yeah, we’re buying more. So that’s the only way to fill in. Actually, there are two ways to fill in. One is through the federal government, and the federal government did release additional food through the Emergency Food Assistance Program, through the American Rescue Plan, early in the pandemic. That food is now gone, so we are working with Feeding America, the national network of food banks, to ask USDA to send more food. That’s not quick. So the quick thing we can do is buy more food.

Miller: At the personal level, for families who are struggling right now, many of them rely on EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer], but that’s just essentially a debit card that you can use when you buy your groceries. What happens if the money doesn’t go nearly as far… the money that’s on that card?

Morgan: Yeah, people come to the food pantries earlier. So our research shows that the money that is allotted through SNAP, what used to be called food stamps on the Oregon Trail card, runs out somewhere between two and a half and three weeks. So that last one and a half to one week of the month, folks are coming to food pantries to eke out their grocery budgets, and that time when they show up at food pantries gets earlier in the month the more expensive the food is and the less far those benefits go at the grocery stores. We actually urge people to flip that. Come to the food pantries early, get what we have available at the food pantries, and then use your benefits to get what the food pantries didn’t have at your grocery stores.

Miller: And what’s the thinking for that? And I’m wondering how successful that messaging is?

Morgan: Yeah, the thinking is that the food pantries will never have the same variety of food that a grocery store has. We might have one hundred items, and grocery stores have thousands and thousands of items on their shelves at any given time. Based on what your family likes to eat, your kids like to eat, what your dietary needs are, what your cultural needs are, what you know how to cook, what you already have in the kitchen, what is in the food pantry may or may not be exactly what you need. And so you want to access as much as you can for free from the free system and save your benefit dollars for the food that is not free and that you need to get at the grocery store. So that’s the thinking behind that. And in terms of asking people to do it, I’d say it’s mixed, especially for folks for whom this is their first experience of hunger and needing to to ask for food assistance. They’re figuring this out. And so I think that we need to continue to get the word out.

Miller: With inflation now, the most recent reports are that it’s more entrenched than many people had hoped. Interest rates on the rise, the stock market in bear market territory. With all that put together, economists now are seriously talking about the possibility of another recession. What would that mean, from the perspective of hunger?

Morgan:  I’m starting to worry that we will see even higher rates of hunger than we saw in 2020 if we see another recession in the next year, year and a half. That our families who are living on low and middle incomes cannot weather the shock of the pandemic followed by a shock of another recession.

Miller: Susannah Morgan, thanks very much.

Morgan:  My pleasure, Dave. Thank you so much.

Miller: Susannah Morgan is the CEO of the Oregon Food Bank.

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