Food insecurity increasing: Local food pantries helping more families than ever before

Mike Wolanin | The Republic People gather outside the Love Chapel food pantry in Columbus, Ind., Monday, Nov. 20, 2023.

Local food pantries say they have seen the demand for help with groceries nearly double over the past two years as inflation squeezed budgets while wages failed to keep pace and pandemic aid expired, resulting in the largest increase in food insecurity in Bartholomew County in at least 13 years.

Love Chapel, 292 Center St., served 1,321 families in April, up from around 750 families two years earlier, said Executive Director Kelly Daugherty. Last month, more than 5,200 local residents turned to the organization for help with food.

“I think the main reason is that our inflation has outpaced wages,” Daugherty said. “Wages are kind of stagnant, and everything is so much more expensive, whether it’s gas or food or any of our day-to-day items that we have to buy. I think it has caused a lot of people who were just barely making ends meet to have to have assistance to get by now.”

And Daugherty said he doesn’t expect demand to slow down any time soon.

“I don’t see us going backwards,” Daugherty said. “I would love it if we did, but I don’t see us going backwards.”

In addition, the Salvation Army, 2525 Illinois St., is seeing increased demand for food, said Nancy Johnson, social services manager at Salvation Army.

Last month, 65 more families sought help with groceries at the Salvation Army than the previous, amounting to 157 additional people, Johnson said. In total, the organization served 581 families in April, or 1,251 people, compared to 537 families in March, or 1,078 people.

“We have seen an increase in people needing food,” Johnson said. “My donations are, hopefully, holding out.”

One factor that may be contributing to the increase in demand for food is that people likely have already spent their tax refunds “and they’re having to do something to make their money go farther,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the Salvation Army could use donations of peanut butter and canned pasta, describing those two items as “the things I’m most short on right now.”

The update from local food pantries comes as the number of Bartholomew County residents experiencing food insecurity rose in 2022 to its highest total in at least 13 years, according to the most recent data from Feeding America, the nation’s largest anti-hunger organization.

The rise in local food insecurity in 2022 coincides with Indiana’s decision to end pandemic-related enhanced food stamp benefits, as well as inflation that started spiking in 2021 and peaked at 9.1% in June 2022.

Food insecurity is described as a lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Data from Feeding America shows that an additional 2,800 Bartholomew County residents experienced food insecurity in 2022 compared to the year before. Overall, 11,320 local residents were food insecure in 2022 — the highest total on record in data going back to 2009.

A total of 13.7% of local residents — nearly 1 in 7 people — experienced food insecurity in 2022, up from 10.4% in 2021 and the highest percentage since 2009, when 14.1% of local residents were food insecure, when the country was reeling from the Great Recession.

“I think that’s verification of what we have been seeing,” Daugherty said of the data. “It was 2022 when (demand for food) really took off.”

Currently, it is hard to say how food insecurity progressed since 2022, though local food pantries have said they have not seen any steep drop-off in demand.

A nationally representative survey released last month by the Urban Institute found that food hardship continued to rise across the country in 2023. Last year, 27% of U.S. adults reported experiencing food insecurity, up from 24.9% in 2022 and 22.5% in 2019, according to the survey.

“The decline in food insecurity between 2019 and 2021 in the wake of the robust government and private response to the COVID-19 pandemic was followed by a sharp increase in food insecurity between 2021 and 2022, coinciding with expiring aid and rising inflation,” the Urban Institute said last month.