Southwest Florida food banks squeezed by higher demand along with rising gas and retail prices
Needy families and food banks are both struggling against rising prices and supply chain shortages that are making it harder to put food on the table.
Officials who operate food pantries in Southwest Florida are hoping the generosity of the community with non-perishable food donations and financial support will help.
People are trying to get back on an even keel from last year and now see rising prices everywhere, said Richard LeBer, president and chief executive officer of the Harry Chapin Food Bank.
“It’s not just food prices, it is all prices,” he said. “It is adding to the stresses of an already stressful situation.”
Harry Chapin is the largest hunger-relief nonprofit serving Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. It provides food supplies to 150 organizations that run pantries, and it operates direct food distribution locations for the needy.
The COVID-19 pandemic, rising gas prices, and the supply chain shortages are straining budgets for households and charities alike, and that means there’s less food to distribute even while there's been a little slowdown in the number of families needing help, charity officials say.
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On top of that, federal pandemic relief for local governments, of which a share was given to food charities, is winding down or gone, officials say.
“I am afraid we are going to have to cut services,” said Steve Popper, president and chief executive officer of Meals of Hope, a food packing agency and food pantry operator in Southwest Florida. “I don’t know what we will do at the first of the year.”
No slowdown of food needs
Food pantries earlier this year saw a dip in the number of families needing food support compared to 2020 when the pandemic hit. But the numbers are now creeping up, officials say.
At its 13 food pantries in Collier and Lee, Meals of Hope has been seeing 3,000 families a week. A year ago in December, 4,000 families a week got food from the organization, Popper said.
Now with gas and retail food prices climbing due to supply chain issues, more families are seeking help with food.
“The numbers are increasing,” he said.
The pantries operate at churches, schools, and other locations where COVID-19 social distancing policies remain in place. Clients stay in their car and show their identification card, and volunteers put the food bag in their trunk.
Clients are working families where often one spouse works 40 hours a week for $15 an hour and the other spouse works part-time at around $15 an hour, Popper said, adding that doesn’t go far in Southwest Florida.
According to rentdata.org., a rental website, Florida has the 18th highest rental rate out of 56 states and territories. The fair market rent for a three-bedroom place in Collier County is $1,792 and $1,559 in Lee County, according to the website.
People work in Collier but live in Lee County where rent is lower, but now their commuting budget has gone up because of high gas prices, Popper said.
“When you look at the lines (at the pantries), they are the (certified nursing assistants) who work in long-term care facilities and the service industry,” Popper said. “We serve very few homeless.”
LeBer, at Harry Chapin, said the pandemic meant a lot of job losses or reduced work hours, or one parent had to stay home when schools and child care centers were closed.
At its direct distribution sites where families can get about 30 pounds of food a week, 5,000 to 6,000 families are being helped now, he said.
“(Our volunteers) see a lot of the same faces,” LeBer said.
Roughly 49% of its client base are families, 19% are seniors and 32% are children, according to Harry Chapin’s website.
Eighty percent or families served said they choose between food or paying utilities, while 73% said they must decide between food and transportation expenses.
Food comes in, goes right back out
Food banks in the region in 2020 distributed record amounts of food to families, and 2021 will be similar, officials say.
Harry Chapin currently distributes around 700,000 pounds of food a week to organizations in the five-county region, but that’s far below 1.2 million pounds a week in 2020 when the pandemic first hit, LeBer said.
In 2019, Harry Chapin was distributing 550,000 pounds of food a week, so the current need is well above pre-pandemic levels, LeBer said.
Meals of Hope distributed 6 million pounds of food in 2020, which is the equivalent to 240 tractor trailers of food, Popper said.
“I think in 2019 we did 1.8 million pounds of food, so it tripled,” Popper said. “Through October of 2021 we have done close to 3.5 million pounds, but one of the problems is we can’t get food. We are not giving out turkeys this year for the first time.”
Meals of Hope is not seeing food donations from food distributors as it has in the past because of supply chain shortages and companies are scaling back.
That means buying more food at higher costs. And trucking expenses have gone way up. Last year, Popper's cost for a truck delivery ran $2,800 to $3,200.
“Now it costs $7,200 — just the shipping and not the cost of the food,” Popper said. “A lot of companies that may have given to food banks are not doing it anymore.”
In Collier County alone this year, Harry Chapin has distributed 16.5 million pounds of food to food pantries it supports, a 111% increase from 7.8 million pounds last year, according to its website.
In Lee County, Harry Chapin so far has distributed 20.5 million pounds of food, a 73% increase from 11.8 million distributed in 2020.
LeBer downplayed supply chain issues for Harry Chapin’s food supply and said the organization stocked up on food in March 2020.
The organization continues to get food from Publix, Costco, Sam’s Club and other major chains. Donations from retailers make up about 40% of the food supply, 30% comes from farmers and the rest is purchased or comes from the government.
He also said community generosity has helped.
“We are fortunate to have strong support from the community,” he said.
Federal help is over or running out
Federal pandemic relief money this year in Collier is gone, Popper said, but what was available this year has already been distributed.
Popper said he spent $300,000 on food purchases recently to last two months from Meals of Hope’s operating budget, but the organization will not get reimbursed because there is no more federal money. He did get reimbursed for $820,000 he spent earlier in the year.
The Community Foundation of Collier County, which handled the distribution for Collier County government, is still distributing the federal money provided this year, according to an email from the organization.
The Community Foundation is structured where the charity buys the food, submits a copy of the canceled check, and gets reimbursed, Popper said.
Since the pandemic started, the foundation also has provided $1 million for food support through several of its own programs and from donor partners, according to Cindi Withorn, the foundation spokeswoman.
LeBer said there continues to be federal money in Lee.
“The federal money this year it is not gone,” he said.
How to support Southwest Florida food banks
Harry Chapin Food Bank: Food and financial donations can be made at the Naples Distribution Center, 3940 Prospect Ave. #101, Naples, 34104. The Fort Myers Distribution Center, 3760 Fowler St., Fort Myers, 33901. Make a gift online at harrychapinfoodbank.org
The Community Cooperative in Lee County. Visit communitycooperative.com/
Meals of Hope: Financial donations can be done online at mealsofhope.org. Checks and food donations can also be sent or dropped off at Meals of Hope, 2221 Corporation Blvd. Naples 34109. Food donations can be dropped off Monday through Friday 7:30 to 4:00.
St. Matthew’s House in Collier County: Attn: Development, 2601 Airport Road S., Naples, 34112 or call 239-774-0500. Visit the website at stmatthewshouse.org/
Salvation Army in Lee County: Call (239) 278-1551 or visit Salvationarmyflorida.org.
Catholic Charities in Naples: Call 239-455-2655 or visit catholiccharitiesdov.org/charities/catholic-charities-collier-county/
Our Daily Bread Food Pantry: Visit ourdailybreadfoodpantry.com or call (239) 259-5188.
The Community Foundation of Collier County. Visit cfcollier.fcsuite.com/erp/donate