Ruth Cummings bent warily over the crates of produce in the hot June sun and peered through the bags of vegetables, carrots and apples laid out outside the old church building that serves as the local pantry.
With gas station and grocery store prices soaring, these donated boxes are a small relief for the 75-year-old in the small western Kentucky town of Fulton, a community that grew its trade out of a railroad stop en route from New Orleans to Chicago.
“It just seems like everything just keeps going higher and higher and higher and higher,” Cummings said. “When you’re in a limited-income retirement, it goes out quicker than it comes in.”
Inflation is eroding purchasing power from people buying groceries, gas and other necessities, even as politicians in Congress and state legislatures neglect the improved public support provided during the pandemic.
Those on the front lines of Ohio Valley pantries and food banks are scrambling to meet rising demand, though they anticipate more hunger and hardship in the coming months.
Less help, more need
At the Ken-Tenn Food Bank, Volunteer Director Ginger Bard knows the people she serves well, including “Miss Ruth”. Cummings had told her that she was struggling to pay utility bills and that the food banks in the pantry are helping tremendously.
“Everyone says the same thing. That money is getting so tight. That helps,” she said.
Food prices have risen by more than 10% over the last year, the sharpest increase since 1980. Gas prices have seen an even more dramatic increase, with prices rising almost 50% more compared to May 2021.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear recently activated the state’s price-gouging laws to combat high gas prices, and President Joe Biden has asked Congress for a federal gas tax holiday, something Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, opposes.
A state-by-state survey by the US Census Bureau that measured the level of food insecurity in households found that more than 1.6 million people in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia said they sometimes or often did not eat enough eaten – a 47% increase since the beginning of the year. A food bank manager serving about 130,000 people in eastern Kentucky, southeast Ohio and West Virginia saw a 27% increase in food demand compared to the same period last year.
Hunger Food Bank executive director Cynthia Kirkhart said food donations are falling because food is more expensive and the cost of buying food for distribution is also increasing.
Last year, the food bank spent about $2 million on groceries to supplement donations. Kirhart expects to spend at least double this year just to keep up.
“It really was a perfect storm to create much higher demand on pantries and certainly food banks,” she said.
In Ohio, the State Association of Food Banks is asking Gov. DeWine for $183 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to insure against the financial pressures food banks are facing.
Rose Frech, the director of the Southeast Ohio Food Bank, said her network of 78 food supplies has seen a 58% increase in emergency food demand since January. Frech said this is due in large part to inflation, which is particularly difficult for older people on fixed incomes.
“We’re talking about the working poor, or people on a fixed income who go out and buy groceries like the rest of us, but they just don’t have enough to make it work,” Frech said.
On Friday, economic pressures, including inflation and supply chain issues, forced the Southeast Ohio Food Bank to significantly downsize its food distribution services across the region this summer, halting distributions that combined served 1,000 people a month. The Appalachian counties that the food bank serves have some of the highest poverty rates in the state.
“We hear from pantries every day that supply is limited. They are rightly concerned that they will not be able to meet the needs in their local communities,” Frech said in a statement. “All we can say to them is that we are doing everything we can, but it is a heartbreaking situation when we know families are starving.”
A spokesman for DeWine said the Republican administration is considering the proposal from the State Association of Food Banks for more funding. The spokesman also said it was not “wise” to use the state’s rainy day fund for any purpose other than stabilizing the state budget. According to Pew, the state has $7.4 billion in reserves.
“A real hunger crunch”
While inflation has brought new faces to Fulton’s Ken-Tenn Food Bank, Bard says the growing lines are also the real-time effect of a retreating pandemic-era safety net.
In March, the GOP-controlled legislature ended Kentucky’s COVID-19 state of emergency. With that, state legislatures scrapped the additional funding for food aid that the federal government had offered states during the pandemic, said Dustin Pugel, senior policy analyst at the progressive Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
Known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), this program offers benefits to help low-income people buy groceries. As a result, Pugel said, SNAP recipients in Kentucky receive an average of $100 less a month in food benefits.
“There is a real hunger crisis here in the coming months,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult. I mean, we were already a state that was facing a lot of food insecurity and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
Bard, the director of the Fulton pantry, said her community has been affected by the drop in services. Approximately 1 in 4 residents of Fulton County’s 6,500 residents take advantage of SNAP. In general, gross monthly income and assets for those who qualify for SNAP must be at or below 130% of the poverty line.
“Our SNAP benefits have gone down, and they’re starting to panic a little,” Bard said.
SNAP benefits aren’t the only pandemic-era government support on the chopping block. Congress phased out the expanded child tax credit in December, giving families hundreds of dollars in monthly payments.
School districts that have been allowed to deliver summer meals directly to children’s homes during the pandemic could have those flexibilities stripped away if Congress allows federal food waivers to expire later this month. Some lawmakers have tried at the last minute to salvage some — but not all — waivers, sending legislation renewing some of them to Biden’s desk for signature.
The vice president of the National School Nutrition Association, who works in a West Virginia school district, recently called the prospect of phasing out nutritional waivers imminent “Crisis.”
Dependent on neighbors
Back in western Kentucky, Cummings carries a few bags of apples into her minivan for delivery to her Fulton neighbors coming home.
She has known them for decades and has formed lasting friendships. A neighbor’s daughter even gave her a drawing of an angel that Cummings keeps hidden in her Bible.
Nowadays, however, some of their neighbors can’t get out much due to medical issues as medical bills and gas costs make it harder for their neighbors to make ends meet every day.
In a community that relies on one another in a time of heightened need, Cummings says, bringing groceries is simply about being a good neighbor.
“They would do the same if it were me,” she said.