As the coronavirus pandemic concludes the country continues to feel the lingering economic effects. One of the biggest challenges Americans face today is inflation. From September of 2020 to September of 2021, the country saw an inflation rate of 5.4%. However, the worst was yet to come, as the inflation rate from September of 2021 to September of 2022 was 8.4%.
Many Americans have been impacted by this the hardest at the grocery store. From April 2021 to April 2022, the cost of meats, poultry, fish, and eggs increased by 14%. To put into context, if a family paid $300 monthly for groceries in 2021, they now likely pay $342 for the same groceries monthly. With already tight budgets, it is easy to see why many Americans face food insecurity. The community of Appalachia is no exception.
One of the ways Americans deal with food insecurity is through the assistance of food banks. Food banks are typically able to supply their community with food by distributing donations they receive back to the people in need. For citizens of Northeast Tennessee, that food bank is located in Kingsport. Leyla Cruz, Programs Manager at Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee, says that this process is more challenging than before.
“Donations have taken a hit, because many years grocery stores would have discount shelves for meat, whatever. ” said Cruz. “Then, they shied away from it because I guess they felt it wasn’t really in line. They want to have a certain image. So, they moved away from it, and we got tons of donations. So, if it got close dated or past date just a smidgen, they would donate to us like gangbusters.”
However, Cruz says that once inflation hit, this was no longer common practice.
“Now that inflation has spiked up, we are seeing more of these discount shelves coming back because families need those items. They want to pay a cheaper amount. The grocers are making money from those discount shelves now rather than people just walking past it.”
This lack of donation could not have come at a more inopportune time, as Cruz states that the food bank is also seeing an increase in families who need their assistance.
“It’s been a really weird game of chess since inflation hit for us here,” says Cruz. “Our families, we’re starting to see our numbers increase. Some locations had on the normal 60 households, then it dipped down during Covid because of the stimulus dollars and SNAP and what not. It spiked back up rather than going back to 60, once the money ran down, and inflation hit in, you’re looking at ‘Okay, we’ll get back at 60.’ No, you’re getting to 90.”
Cruz spoke that her foodbank is seeing a wider range of demographics entering the foodbank in need of assistance. She said that the food bank is now seeing people who are likely middle income and need assistance with food costs rising. People are coming in unsure of how the process of receiving assistance works, thus showing that they are new to this.
Nevertheless, Cruz said that there are groups who consistently help, one of the most prominent being the elderly. These citizens often stick to a laid out monthly budget as they are likely on either retirement pay or government assistance programs. So, when the cost of groceries rose and their income did not, they needed assistance.
Despite all the challenges, the food bank has managed to say afloat. One of the most key factors in making that possible has been different grants. For the Second Harvest of Kingsport, Ashley Penley helps keep track of potential grants as the Donor Database Coordinator. The foodbank receives money from individual donors, other organizations, grants from the overhead Feeding
America organization, businesses, and both the state and federal government. Penley highlighted that “cause marketing” helps the food bank tremendously. This is when a business asks its customers if they would like to donate a certain amount to help fight local hunger.
Penley said that Feeding America gets this money raised by these businesses, and then redistributes it to local food banks based off factors such as proximity to the businesses the money was raised at.
Even with assistance, this food bank has had to adapt some of their practices. Penley cited Project Thanksgiving as an example of this.
“For about nine years, we have always kept our Thanksgiving box at $25,” said Penley. “That includes a turkey, a bible, and kinds of desserts, and all sorts of other fixings with it. So, it is a complete Thanksgiving meal. Well, this year we can’t even get turkeys. We’re going to have to get chickens and some other things. We’ve just kind of had to improvise and find the best deal possible. But, we still want to keep it at $25.”
Second Harvest Food Bank in Kingsport was not the only food bank in Appalachia that said has had to adapt to the times. Eric Aft, the CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, said the ability to adapt is more crucial than ever in recent years.
“Being creative with the different strategies and, again, telling the story to your existing donor base as well as trying to get the word out through media,” said Aft. “Traditional media, social media, what have you, you know about the work you’re doing and how it matters even more right now.”
Aft also cites that his food bank has also seen an uptick in demand for their assistance.
“In rough numbers, for a couple years, we moved from spending $400,000 on food to spending $4 million to buy food,” said Aft. “That’s not sustainable for us. That number is going to go down to $2 million. That’s still significantly beyond pre-Covid numbers for us, but we have to do it. We have to secure those resources. We’re doing it.”
Combined, these two foodbanks serve 26 counties in Tennessee and North Carolina. During these challenging times, the foodbanks need community assistance more than ever. Staff at each cited community support as one of the main reasons they can stay afloat during these trying times. Even if members of the community are unable to help by donating money, there are other ways to help. Both can always use volunteers for various tasks and donations of food items that individuals know will not be used in their household.
Edward Breese, the Community Relations Manager of the Kingsport location, and Eric Aft of the Northwest of North Carolina location, both encourage people in the community to visit their sites. They hope that people will see what these locations do for the community. They encourage locals to share that message and, if possible, to contribute however they see fit.