Food banks and pantries in Alachua County are facing more challenges than usual this season thanks to a rise in the price of groceries, the aftermath of Hurricane Ian and an increase in demand.
“Nobody’s getting rich working here,” said Bread of the Mighty Program Director Sherah English. “We’re here to help the community.”
Bread of the Mighty is a non-profit food bank that has been serving the community for 35 years.
Grocery prices are at an all-time high all over the country. This increase in prices is taking a toll on the food banks nationwide.
English said that it is not only affecting the influx of food being donated. It is also increasing the demand as more families are in a disadvantaged position. She said that the numbers relating to demand have almost reached what they were during the first year of COVID-19.
“During the first year of covid a lot of our pantries were overwhelmed by people,” English said.
She said that the numbers were just starting to return to normal before skyrocketing again because of the higher than usual prices of groceries.
If residents are unable to donate food, Bread of the Mighty offers alternative options like donating money. According to the Bread of the Mighty Website, donating just $1 equals eight meals going to families in need.
“The reason for that is because we can get the products for free from certain partnerships we have with Feeding America,” English said. “We just have to pay for the shipping.”
Officials at Feeding Florida, the state’s largest hunger relief network also complained about the stress that inflation has caused. Alachua County is one of the counties that they serve.
“The high inflation rate has a one-two punch on our network,” said Robin Safley, Feeding Florida executive director.
Safley said that inflation leaves more people struggling to make ends meet and increases the number needing to be served. Also, supply chains are being stretched thin which translates to grocery store shelves being less full. This then affects the food banks because a portion of the food they serve is picked up from commercial stores like Walmart, Publix and Target.
Gainesville Community Ministry and Vineyard Church are two food pantries in Gainesville. They both said they are seeing increased prices caused by heavier demand for food.
“We have seen an increase in people that are needing food,” said Corey LeFave, Gainesville Community Ministry development director. “We were dealing with around 150 families per month and at this point we increased it at least 50 families a month.”
Gainesville Community Ministry provides each member of the household with a two-day food supply every 28 days. Applicants must be Alachua County residents and they must apply in person. A picture ID, a Social Security card and proof of income are all required.
“Demand is definitely up, over the last several months there have been a lot more folks needing groceries.” Vineyard Church Lead Pastor Mike Raburn said.
Vineyard Church holds drive-through food drives every other Wednesday, on a “come as you need,” basis.
Raburn said that everything has become a little more difficult because of the increase in demand, donations not being as good as they once were and a lack of volunteers. He said that the drives have created an extended family for them and that is why they keep pushing through the challenges.
“Watching everyone struggle is both heartbreaking and kind of makes you steel up your nerve,” Raburn said. “Like we’re going to keep doing this because everyone needs it.”
County residents emphasized the importance of having food banks around during times like these. They said rising prices are making it more difficult to make ends meet.
Gainesville resident Sheila Ward, 68, is retired and has three others in her household. She said that she cannot believe the cost of some groceries. Food drives like the one that the Vineyard church holds go a long way for her.
“I actually went to buy eggs sometime last month and I think for a dozen it was something like $6,” Ward said. “Everything has gone up.”
She added, laughing, her and her family almost went vegetarian because of the prices of meat.
Edna Graham, 89, is another Gainesville resident that stressed the importance of having food banks around her community now that the grocery prices are so high.
“It means a lot to me,” said Graham, who lives alone. “They have everything here that I need.”
In addition to inflation and increased demand, Hurricane Ian left its mark on parts of Florida in late September, presenting another challenge that food banks must face this season. Families are still trying to pick up the pieces, even as Thanksgiving quickly approaches.
Food banks across the county are looking to do their part to ensure these families can celebrate Thanksgiving without having to worry about the financial burden.
Staff at Feeding Florida said they are doing their best to deal with this year’s challenges.
“Meals ready to eat” or MREs are a new tool that is being used to help families during disasters like Hurricane Ian specifically.
“It is like an army type product that requires no electricity for the consumption of it,” Safley said. “We are currently sitting on more than 600,000 MREs within our network which can be deployed quickly.”
Safley said that MREs are not something that they want to serve long-term for morale purposes, but they are a great tool for families when hurricanes hit quickly and they are unable to evacuate.
After Hurricane Ian hit, Feeding Florida worked with food banks like Bread of the Mighty to help roll out MREs to families in need.
Bread of the Mighty sent some of their employees down south to help with distribution of food to those affected areas.
The University of Florida Athletic Association is also involved in local food relief. The UF softball team has been holding food drives at each of their “fall ball” games this season. UF Assistant Director of Community Development Pierre Banks is working alongside food banks in the county to gather more donations.
“Because the games this fall have no price of admission, the team decided that they want to do something to give back to the community,” Banks said. “When the softball games this fall come to an end, we’ll deliver the canned foods to the banks.”
The team is working specifically with Food4Kids, Bread of the Mighty and GRACE Marketplace.
Banks said that they have done very well so far with the amount of food that they have collected at the games. He gave credit to Gator softball fans.
Alachua County residents looking to give back to their communities can volunteer at the drives. The main tasks that volunteers are typically asked to complete are packing, sorting and cleaning.
English said that the “why” behind the work that goes into organizations like these, comes down to the joy of providing for the most deserving families. This joy serves as motivation to overcome challenges like inflation, increased demand, and hurricane relief.
“We wake up so inspired to be able to come to work every day,” English said. “Everybody that’s here really is here for the mission.”