Sonoma County food banks struggle to keep up amid record inflation, high demand
Sara Rives, a mother of two, patiently sat in a car line on Tuesday with her sons and her mother. The lengthy queue leading to Friends In Service Here, a Santa Rosa food pantry, spilled out onto Sebastopol Road.
As meat and gas prices soar amid record inflation and pandemic-related supply chain issues, Rives said, her family tries to only use their car when they need it. So on Tuesday, with Thanksgiving approaching, that meant a quick stop at F.I.S.H. before taking her son to a doctor’s appointment.
Rives is a part-time student at Santa Rosa Junior College, where she studies English as a second language. She stopped working two years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer. Then the pandemic hit.
All of that together, she said, has made money extremely tight.
Rives is one of thousands of Sonoma County residents who rely on food distribution to feed their families, but food banks are struggling to keep up with increased demand and the surging price of food.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said David Goodman, CEO of Redwood Empire Food Bank, the North Coast’s largest food bank. He has been working in hunger relief for 27 years.
Increased costs could decrease contributions
Amid a global spike in inflation, local food bank organizers fear the rising costs of food staples, as well as gas, will threaten donations at a time when increased food insecurity is prompting families like Rives’ to rely more heavily on food giveaways.
Before the pandemic began, Redwood Empire Food Bank served approximately 10,300 households per month on average. At their highest mark in May 2020, they were serving about 34,000 households.
Now, current demand for Redwood Empire is about 17,400 households per month ― that’s the good news. The bad news is that’s still 69% higher than pre-pandemic levels. And with inflation and supply chain bottlenecks, the food bank is forced to spend much more to serve those experiencing food insecurity and hunger, Goodman said.
The numbers of those in need across the county is still higher than before the pandemic.
In March 2020, there were 26,741 individuals in Sonoma County using CalFresh, California's version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In September there were 31,018 individuals, according to data from the California Department of Social Services.
Along with receiving state and federal subsidy packages, the food bank buys tremendous amounts of fresh food and other goods that provision health to the households being served, Goodman said.
“It costs us more and costs donors more,” Goodman said, but it’s well worth it.
Products from the state’s primary food aid program have also been limited due to supply chain bottlenecks, said Allison Goodwin, director of programs for Redwood Empire Food Bank. They use those items for their senior baskets, packages of goods that are delivered to seniors in need.
The real cost of food
Additionally, consumer prices increased 6.2% compared to last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s Consumer Price Index. That’s the largest 12-month increase since 1990, the bureau reported. Energy prices increased 30% and the food index increased 5.3% over the last 12 months, they reported.
“Peanut butter is expensive. And eggs. Any meat,” said Jennifer Emery, director of Friends In Service Here, or F.I.S.H., a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit food pantry run by volunteers.
They buy their food products from Redwood Empire. Records show the cost of eggs was up $2.35 per case compared to last year, Emery said.
Chicken cost $0.78 per pound prior to the pandemic, and now $1.15 per pound is “a screaming deal,” said Goodwin.
“I learn a lot from our clients,” said Mark Silvia, who was passed out groceries at the drive-through pantry at F.I.S.H. on Tuesday. “People are struggling.There are a lot of people who are just making ends meet.”
A retired computer operator and part-time barber, Silvia relies solely on Social Security and is both a volunteer and client at the local pantry. He spends his free time providing care and home-cooked meals to homeless friends. He said F.I.S.H allows him to keep doing what he loves: helping others.
Rising prices of food and gas have families struggling right now, and “if they didn't have us, I don’t know if they would be able to feed their families,” he said.
“Santa Rosa is a great community for this,” Silvia said. “The people stick together. My feeling is that people come together in dire need. I’m glad — I’m proud to be here.”
He thanked the donors who help keep the pantry running through hard times, especially around the holiday season.
“’Tis the season, right?” he added cheerfully before heading back to the line of cars.
You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or email@example.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.