Soaring food costs making it tougher for food pantries

Food prices and demand for help are going up at pantries while donations are dropping.
A food pantry in Orlando, Fla., June 2022

Soaring food costs have hit food pantries very hard. Significantly more people are showing up for emergency food assistance. At the same time, food donations are harder to get and costs have quadrupled.

Carrie Schumacher is the director of Willow Creek Care Center in South Barrington, Ill. Food providers like Willow Care and people who need food are facing the same pressures, she said.

“Our guests’ money is not going nearly as far as it did last year. It’s harder than ever to stretch dollars to pay bills and put food on the table,” Schumacher told The Center Square.

The food pantry and other services that Willow Creek provides are part of the ministry of the Willow Creek Community Church. The church started the food pantry 30 years ago when one church member bought a bag of groceries for another church member. The Care Center has expanded over the years into a modern facility that provides clothing, dental and vision care and an auto repair ministry, in addition to food.

Schumacher said food pantries all across the state are reporting higher numbers of needy people than they saw last year.

Ninety percent of food banks across Illinois are reporting increased demand for food.

At Willow Creek Care Center, Schumacher said they have had a 54% increase in the number of people who are coming to them for food this year as compared to last year. At the same time, the cost of food has quadrupled.

“Being able to provide the same level of food that we were able to provide pre-COVID has been a significant challenge,” Schumacher said.

Every week, Willow Creek Care Center gives 900 families enough groceries to last for a week. Guests can get free food from the food pantry two times a month. They leave with food that has a retail value of $150 to $250 dollars. Because of partnerships and corporate sponsorships and donations, Willow Creek is able to source food at huge discounts. Willow Creek pays approximately one-eighth of the sticker prices that people would pay if they bought the same food at a grocery store.

Most of the food comes from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a group that has been sourcing good quality, nutritious food and supplying it to food pantries and soup kitchens in the area for more than 40 years.

In addition to supplying food, the Food Depository has hooked Willow Creek up with local stores that have food to give away. Willow Creek sends trucks out most days to “glean” food that is nearing the end of its shelf life so that they can provide it to the people they serve.

Unfortunately, inflation has made the process much more difficult, Schumacher said.

“Their items are costing them more, so groceries are ordering less food. That means they have less surplus to donate to us,” she said.

To provide even remotely near the types and amounts of food that Willow Creek guests need, the Care Center has had to quadruple the amount of money that they spend out of their budget.

“We are now purchasing items such as yogurt, milk, eggs and produce – items that were regularly donated by partners before the pandemic,” Schumacher said.

The guests who come to Willow Creek do not get to take home as many of the more costly items such as meat that they had received in the past, Schumacher said. Families used to be able to pick five to seven meat items from the freezer, she said.

“Now we have to limit them to three meat choices,” she said.