‘Not sustainable’: DFW food banks struggle to meet surging need, even as their resources decline
Delton MacFarland’s trip to the food pantry on his birthday was a highlight.
The 66-year-old visits the Central Storehouse in East Fort Worth pretty regularly. He needs the food he picks up there to help feed his family, certainly. But he also looks forward to the chance to visit and pray with the volunteers who greet him by name. Today, they sang happy birthday to him.
“I feel good when I come here,” MacFarland said.
The Central Storehouse food pantry is a project of the Central Bible Church. It looks like small homespun grocery store, but instead of a cash register, there are volunteers who help people shop. The organization will even call an Uber so no one has to schlep their groceries on the bus.
MacFarland lives on a fixed income, and said inflation makes for uncomfortable math.
“Everything costs more,” MacFarland said. “So if I gotta spend more to buy a pack of eggs, something else is going to be lacking. I’m going to have less gas. I’m going to have less something.”
Inflation is driving more and more people into the Central Storehouse, said Jon Rhiddlehoover, the pastor who runs the food pantry. Every Tuesday and Thursday, it’s open for six hours, and they serve between 170 and 250 families, he said.
For many of those families, the trips have become more frequent because they’re running out of food every week instead of once a month.
“There are more and more people coming more regularly,” Rhiddlehoover said. “So there’s something that’s causing a strain.”
This food pantry is one part of a sprawling and complex ecosystem of organizations set up to make sure people who can’t afford food do not go hungry. But that ecosystem is struggling, faced by a straightforward supply and demand problem: Need is increasing, as the resources to meet that need have declined.
Inflation and an end to expanded pandemic spending has been a one-two punch, pummeling household finances for many Texas households.
Meanwhile, the food banks that supply most of the food given away by charitable organizations are receiving less food from state and federal government programs. Some are seeing declines in fundraising and donations from private sources like grocers. Operational costs are also up, and supply chain issues continue to present challenges.
“We are serving at higher levels now than we ever did during the pandemic. Not only has the need increased, but our expenses have increased with that,” said Erica Yaeger, the chief external affairs officer for the Plano-based North Texas Food Bank.
While inflation steadily erodes a family’s spending power, cuts to pandemic-era programs come as shocks to family finances, Rhiddlehoover said. The Fort Worth-based Tarrant Area Food Bank supplies more than half the food given away at the Central Storehouse, and it supplies about 500 community organizations across North Texas.
Last month, federal SNAP benefits that had been expanded during the pandemic were cut back. What that meant for the more than 1.3 million Texas households that rely on the food stamps program was an immediate loss of about $212 a month in grocery-buying power.
Rhiddlehoover said they saw an almost immediate uptick in need after the cuts went into effect.
“There's a real need that is out there that is not over just because COVID seems to be a little less prevalent] than it was a year ago,” Rhiddlehoover said.
Tarrant Area Food Bank CEO Julie Butner said the rollback of SNAP benefits last month is being compounded by a return to more restrictive pre-pandemic Medicaid rules starting this month. When more families can’t afford enough food, more people turn to local charities, which in turn rely on the food bank.
“It's like we're jumping off a cliff,” Butner said. “And we're the net. We're trying to catch these folks. And the problem with that is our net has also been pulled out from under us.”
During the pandemic, food banks saw an increased supply of food from state and federal programs that buy extra food that farmers grow but can’t sell. That helped them address the sharp uptick in need as COVID upended the economy. Now, the pandemic programs that helped food banks have also been rolled back.
This year, the Tarrant Area Food Bank is getting about 25% less food from government programs than it did last year. the end of another pandemic program. The end of the pandemic program wasn’t a surprise, but the size of the decline and the growing need have already upended the organization’s plans.
“We set aside $5 million of donor dollars, public support, to go toward food purchases,” Butner said. “We thought that would last us 12 months and it has lasted us three.”
Add to the struggle that cash donations to the food bank have also declined from a pandemic peak, Butner said.
'Federal Reserve of food'
The Tarrant Area Food Bank is one of 21 regional charities that work, mostly behind the scenes, to collect and then distribute food to churches, food pantries, schools and other community organizations across the state.
The greater North Texas region is split down the middle, with the Fort Worth-based Tarrant Area Food Bank covering 13 counties in the western half, and the Plano-based North Texas Food Bank serving 13 counties in the eastern half.
“We’re theNorth Texas Food Bank Federal Reserve of food,” said Yaeger from the North Texas Food Bank. The food banks provide a reliable supply of food and support for public facing organizations in their regions.
Food banks across the state are struggling, said Feeding Texas director Celia Cole. Her group lobbies on behalf of this food bank network, and is calling on state and federal lawmakers to increase support for food banks, including donations of surplus farm goods.
Texas has a $30 billion budget surplus this year. Doubling the state’s purchase of unsold farm goods that get donated to food banks – the Surplus Agricultural Products Grant – would account for less than 1% of that budget surplus.
Feeding Texas is also pushing the state to ease access to SNAP benefits. If the state helps vulnerable people afford groceries with food stamps, they’ll be less likely to need emergency food assistance from food banks, she said.
Texas has the dubious distinction as one of the leaders in food insecurity, with nearly 14% of households in the state struggling to afford enough food for a healthy diet. Only four states have a higher rate of food insecurity, according to the most recent Census Bureau data.
“What food banks are thinking about doing is starting to ration: How much food can we give out at a time? How much food can we let our partners pick up?’” Cole said. “They’re really starting to think about things from a scarcity mindset of how do we stretch our resources?”
At the Plano distribution center of the North Texas Food Bank, Erica Yaeger said rationing isn’t on the table yet. But the organization is also looking at the math and trying to figure out how to find a way forward.
“This year, we’ve budgeted to spend $30 million — half of our annual operating budget — on purchased food,” she said.
The organization is lucky to have the cash reserves to do that, Yaeger. But she said the organization can’t keeping buying food to cover the gap.
The organization has supplied 105 million meals since the beginning of its current fiscal year in July, according to statistics provided by the nonprofit. That’s 7 million more than it distributed in the same portion of its last fiscal year, and close to double what it gave out in the same portion of the 2018 fiscal year.
It can’t keep buying food at the volume it is in order to meet that level of demand, Yaeger said.
“We know that’s not sustainable,” she said.
An uncertain future
The North Texas Food Bank and the Tarrant Area Food Bank both say they’ve grown more efficient over the course of the pandemic, and they are looking at other ways to cut costs. Both report active efforts to find more private sources of food donations like grocery stores, wholesalers, producers. And they’re increasing fundraising efforts, too.
Right now, though, Julie Butner said the warehouse shelves of the Tarrant Area Food Bank are emptier than they’ve ever been. Figuring out how to fill them keeps her up at night.
At the Central Storehouse food pantry in east Fort Worth, Rhiddlehoover said he can see the Tarrant Area Food Bank’s depleted inputs when he goes online to order food to stock the Central Storehouse shelves.
Some days, there are plenty of options and lots of available product. Other days, there are only a few options for produce, meat, bread and other staples. At times, there are little to no dairy products available.
“When we see the zeros across the board, we get a little nervous about what we're going to have the food because people are coming. People are coming,” Rhiddlehoover said. “And so it's a constant concern, a constant strain. And we're praying that it doesn't continue to drop in number because we really we really need that food.”
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