CHICAGO — After two years of exploding demand for food assistance brought on by the pandemic, Chosen Tabernacle food pantry in Englewood finally saw the need for its services start to drop earlier this year.
But in recent months, that demand started to rise — and it could even eclipse pandemic levels, pastor Sandy Gillepsie said.
This time, inflation is to blame.
“We’re seeing it every week,” said Gillepsie, who runs Chosen Tabernacle at 6201 S. Sangamon Ave. “Everything is going up. [Clients] are having to make a choice: Am I going to eat or am I going to buy medicine?”
Inflation hit a four-decade high in June, with the cost of food as one of the leading reasons for rising prices.
Food prices increased 10 percent year-over-year in March, the first double-digit leap in food prices since 1981, according to a report from the Greater Chicago Food Depository. That dramatic jump comes after two years of escalating food prices brought on by pandemic-caused production and logistics disruptions.
All major categories of groceries are more expensive than they were this time last year, including dairy, meats, produce, and cereals and bakery products.
Families straining to cover the basics also have been hit hard by record gas prices.
Rising food prices mean more demand at Chicago-area food pantries, which increasingly are stretched thin to meet the need.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network of neighborhood food pantries served 10 percent more families this April than the same month last year, which can be attributed in part to inflation, said Sophie Milam, vice president of public policy and advocacy.
“We are seeing an increase in demand for food throughout our network,” Milam said in a statement. “Anecdotally, we have heard from partners that inflation and the rising cost of items like food and gas is negatively affecting our clients and their budgets.”
At some local food pantries, the increase in clients has been stark. Some pantries are having to make tough decisions as they seek to meet the demand.
Care For Real, an Edgewater-based food pantry, is seeing a 332 percent increase in first-time visitors compared to this time last year.
The pantry served 260 families in a single day, the highest-ever number for the organization. The same date last year, Care For Real served 153 families.
“It’s absolutely inflation,” said Gregory Gross, Care For Real’s executive director. “People were just able to get by before. With food costs, fuel costs, people are struggling to get by.”
The record food pantry turnout comes after Care For Real dramatically expanded its footprint during the pandemic. The nonprofit opened a Rogers Park pantry and added a drive-through pickup operation in Rogers Park to meet pandemic-era demand.
Nourishing Hope, another food assistance nonprofit that has recently expanded its footprint and services, is also seeing plenty of new clients.
Since April 1, the West Town-based organization has served 1,600 new families. That’s nearly double during the entire previous fiscal year, said CEO Kellie O’Connell.
“People are seeing their money not going as far at the grocery store,” O’Connell said. “It’s forcing people to make really hard decisions.”
The increased demand for food assistance comes as pantries are getting fewer donations and devoting more of their budgets toward food, which also can be chalked up to inflation or other economic pressures.
The Food Depository, which distributes goods to 700 food pantry and soup kitchen partners in the area, is spending twice as much on food — $35 million — as it was two years ago, Milam said.
Those increases are likely to continue. If the food depository buys as many eggs as it did last year, it will cost an additional $2.2 million, according to the organization’s inflation report.
Food pantries are adjusting to keep food flowing to people in need.
Nourishing Hope previously would give clients a choice of chicken, beef or pork, but now the pantry may only offer one protein at a time, O’Connell said. Beef and pork products are among the food items whose prices have risen most sharply.
There has been less variety overall in the kinds of foods distributed, she said.
Care For Real’s gas expenses doubled this year, which has eaten into its food and employee budget. Hiring has been frozen at the organization as funds are diverted to keeping the pantries stocked, Gross said.
Some pantries limit the number of times a client can visit, but not Chosen Tabernacle. But that policy might be reversed if food price increases continue, Gillepsie said.
“If this trend continues, we’ll have to rethink our distribution process,” Gillepsie said. “I don’t see us being able to obtain additional product.”
Food price inflation is likely to continue through the rest of the year, according to the Food Depository.
There are ways for neighbors to help. Most pantries need money and food donations, as well as volunteers. It is one of the most direct ways to help residents struggling with the impacts of inflation, Milam said.
Just more than 20 percent of all area households with kids are food insecure, according to the organization.
“While all households are feeling the impact of inflation and rising food prices, our low-income neighbors have little ability to adjust spending from other parts of their budget to afford the higher cost of food,” Milam said.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: