LIMA — Food banks are purchasing less food because of inflation, despite seeing increased need after the expiration of the child tax credit and rising costs for food, gas and shelter.
Persistent supply shortages, shipping delays and higher prices are making it difficult for food banks to keep their shelves stocked, mirroring the trend in grocery stores. But the problem comes at a particularly difficult time for families, as inflation soared to an annual rate of 7.5% in January.
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks, which purchases food in bulk for Ohio food pantries, has seen an 18.4% increase in the cost of food in the last six months, leading the association to purchase less food. Donations from individuals, corporations and other entities are declining or flat, while federal commodities have not made up for the losses, the association said.
The West Ohio Food Bank recently canceled an order for canned chicken after the price increased by $10,000 in two weeks, the time it took to finalize the order, CEO Tommie Harner said.
The food bank has in some cases had to throw out spoiled produce that arrived too late because of shipping delays, Harner said.
Competition from discount grocers and home delivery services has made it difficult for food banks to purchase imperfect produce and less-than-grade A products, according to the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
Food banks typically see higher demand in winter months because of expensive gas and electric bills. But the combination of inflation and the expiration of the child tax credit, which provided monthly income to 1.2 million Ohio families, has led more families to rely on food distributions.
“Everyone’s having to make adaptations for that,” Harner said.
Higher prices hit middle, low-income families
The average American lost 2% to 3% purchasing power last year, as wage increases were tempered by 7.5% annual inflation — the highest in 40 years, said Brandon Miller, an economics professor at the University of Northwestern Ohio.
The burden is falling hardest on middle and lower-income households, who don’t hold assets that can appreciate in value during periods of inflation, Miller said.
Miller described the problem as three-fold: There are more dollars circulating in the economy than ever before, causing demand shock as people have more to spend and firms can raise prices.
But the economy is also experiencing supply shock due to rolling supply chain disruptions and a tight labor market, resulting in higher wages and higher input costs for everything from fertilizer to packaging and shipping. Those costs trickle up the supply chain, so firms raise prices to maintain profits, Miller said.
And the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates low since the Great Recession, Miller said, allowing people and firms to borrow more.
“If you increased demand and reduced supply, you end up with the highest inflation in 40 years,” Miller said.
Still, if the Federal Reserve makes good on its promise to begin raising interest rates in March, Miller said inflation may start to slow down.
Saving money in an era of inflation
Consumer price index estimates for January show food costs have soared by an estimated 7% in the last 12 months. Those price changes have not been evenly distributed: The cost of bread increased by 5.9% in 12 months, while meat prices soared 13.6%.
“We can’t stop the market prices, so we’ve got to become more creative with what we do,” said Jami Dellifield, a family and consumer sciences educator for The Ohio State University Extension office in Hardin County.
Dellifield typically tells her clients to start with a budget and a meal plan to reduce impulse spending or trips to convenience stores, where goods tend to be more expensive.
But a food budget alone won’t make up for higher prices, so Dellifield suggests getting creative: Buy eggs from a friend. Find farmers or smaller stores to buy produce from directly. Compare prices before buying. Look for coupons. Freeze leftovers and plan meals that can last for several days. Find cheaper recipes with MyPlate.gov. Switch to frozen produce. Invest in kitchen appliances that can save money later.
“Fresh is nice, but you’re still receiving the same nutrients from a frozen strawberry as a fresh strawberry,” Dellifield said.
She added: “This is a good time for us as a community to come together, for us to look at what we can do to help one another. What do I have in excess that I can help someone else with?”