Soaring food prices put pressure on pantries, SNAP recipients in Hudson County
As the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic progresses, runaway inflation is sending grocery prices soaring and again putting the unemployed and working poor at risk.
And soaring prices for staples like milk, eggs and paper products are straining one of the lifelines of the safety net for the most vulnerable: Hudson County’s food pantries.
“People pull back, they think, ‘OK, the pandemic is over,'” said Joanne Gorman, a pastoral associate at Saint Paul the Apostle in Jersey City who manages the church pantry. “But now we are hitting double-digit inflation. We just get very high food prices.
The pandemic has significantly worsened food insecurity in Hudson County. The number of people receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits has more than doubled since March 2020, from 29,000 to 59,000.
At St. Paul the Apostle, Old Bergen Road and Greenville Avenue, pantry food comes from a variety of sources, including “very, very generous” parishioners, Gorman said, who sometimes donate cash or cash. gift cards to stores like Walmart or Target.
Food prices have risen 8.1% in the Northeast since last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With the benefits of SNAP not going that far, more residents are turning to community and faith-based pantries only to find that they, too, are suffering from rising prices.
“I used to be able to get 12 boxes of off-brand cereal for maybe $17 and now it’s $21. It’s kind of a small jump, but when you need 100 boxes of cereal, that’s a lot of money,” Gorman said.
Gorman said that over the winter she will donate between 70 and 80 bags at each bi-weekly giveaway, but last time she gave 94 bags and is preparing to do maybe more than 100 during the next distribution. The last time it topped 100 was at Thanksgiving.
(An individual can take a bag home, but Gorman said it’s difficult to estimate how many people in total the food reaches because many people bring bags home to their families, which vary in size.)
Gorman says she’s pretty sure some of her clients are working, but still not earning enough. “Sometimes you say, ‘Well, that person has a job.’ I don’t think it matters, you know, that person also has four or five mouths to feed,” Gorman said.
At Our Lady of Sorrows on Clerk Street, the pantry gets its supplies from the Community Food Bank (CFB) of New Jersey, according to its manager, Carol Harris, so there’s no risk of running out. She reports to the BFC on the number of people she serves and she allocates enough food to meet that demand.
She said the pantry saw an 11% increase in the number of people served from January to February, the most recent month for which Harris has figures.
“Food is very expensive in the store and people need to be able to feed their children and feed themselves,” Harris said. “And a lot of people are not necessarily unemployed. Some of them are working poor.
“Hunger is a real problem in the community,” she added.
There were at least 55 food pantries in Hudson County in 2021, according to the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.
The threat of the end of COVID-era federal aid looms like a dark cloud overhead, which could reduce SNAP benefits by nearly $100 per month per person in a given household.
At the start of the pandemic, the federal government increased SNAP benefits to the highest amount legally allowed for their household size, a decision that Adele LaTourette, senior director of policy and advocacy at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey , called it a “huge lifeline.”
“You have seniors who were getting the $16 monthly minimum and now they were getting over $200 a month in terms of SNAP benefits,” she said.
This increase is coming to an end, but it is not yet known when. The deadline, technically fixed at April 15, should largely be postponed until at least June.
But every time that happens, removing additional SNAP benefits will not erase the amount of need that has accumulated over the past two years. “We’re not going to see a pre-pandemic landscape,” LaTourette said.
She said her organization hopes to see a slow decline in benefits rather than a sharp drop, but it remains to be seen how this will be handled.
In the meantime, pantry managers in the field will continue to fill in the gaps.
“I have a distribution next Wednesday… and I have almost no cereal. I have six boxes of cereal. So I’ll take those gift cards and be at Walmart later trying to get all the boxes of cereal I can for less than $2,” Gorman said.
“People think I’m crazy,” she added with a laugh.
Getting food is a constant scramble. Last week, a truckload of English muffins was dropped off and Gorman never knew where they came from.
“I’m sure more people will come,” Gorman said, “especially as prices continue to rise.”