The Thomas Jefferson Area Food Bank has been packed for the last month, its warehouse holding rows of pallets of canned goods stacked to be packed into kits for seniors or distributed to members of the community who need emergency food.
As of late, it’s also held lines of people.
“This is the one day this week where it hasn’t been crowded,” said the food bank’s partner engagement manager Joe Kreiter.
Higher prices at the grocery store mean more and more people in Charlottesville and Albemarle County are relying on food banks to feed themselves and their families. Rising food costs are being blamed. Prices swelled 11.4% between August 2021 and August 2022, according to the most recent Consumer Price Index report.
Michael McKee, CEO of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, which partners with the Thomas Jefferson Area branch, said the organization served 110,000 people in July, an increase from 106,000 in June. He expects the upward trend to continue.
High rent in Charlottesville and Albemarle County and a lack of affordable child care often leave little room in a family’s budget, McKee said.
“Let’s say you have a single parent bringing home $2,500 a month. They’re probably paying $1,500 on rent, $600 on child care, and then they’ve got to worry about utilities, gas, clothing, food. Do the math,” McKee said.
The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank has seen a jump in the number of people who need its services for the first time, a fact Kreiter has witnessed.
“With school being back, we’re getting a lot of first-timer young families,” Kreiter said.
Single mothers, seniors and children are the three groups who depend on food-assistance programs the most. Food banks used to provide emergency food assistance, but they’ve become a regular source of food for low income people, Kreiter said.
“We used to have people who would come in to a food pantry and pick up some supplies, and then later they would supplement that by going to the grocery store,” Kreiter said. “Now they’re coming back to us.”
That’s true at Feeding Greene, a food pantry serving Greene County. Assistant director Sandra Tuthill said that community members are coming to the food bank more often to get their groceries. It’s now open to families more often during the week—on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays—than it was a couple years ago.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase. It’s nearly double,” Tuthill said.
Although most of the people coming to the food bank are from Greene County, volunteers have seen a growing number of people from Orange, Culpeper and Madison counties seeking support.
Another factor is that tough economic conditions that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic mean those households look different than they once did. Three-person households have swelled to include up to 10 members, and many repeat clients need more groceries when they visit.
Rising costs at the grocery store means that people are donating less, compounding the issue, the food bank directors said.
While food donations are dropping, McKee said the biggest decrease comes from the federal government, which has dropped donations by half compared to 2020 and 2021, when the government ramped up donations to food banks.
“They’re going back to more normal levels of donations, but we’re not at normal levels of demand,” McKee said.
Kreiter hopes to work with women-owned farms and farms owned by people of color to bring fresh produce to people in need. He needs grant money to pay these farmers a living wage, however, and that will take months, if not longer.
“Several organizations in the community have scheduled some food drives, but it wasn’t like it was last year,” Tuthill said. Feeding Greene isn’t receiving enough donations of meat, so it’s turned to other sources of protein, mainly eggs.
“We haven’t had USDA milk for three to four months,” Tuthill said. Though the organization has an outlet for eggs, it’s having to buy them—stretching resources thin.
Though certain groups seek the food bank and its partners more than others, the food bank serves a wide cross section of the community.
“It’s the new immigrant to the country and the person who’s been here for generations,” McKee said.
Changes in the labor market are responsible for the greater dependence on food assistance programs. Technological advances have led companies to cut manufacturing jobs, leaving “very few places for people with less advanced job skills and lower educational attainment to go,” McKee said.
Greater funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program during the pandemic has helped, but those funds are likely to be cut soon.
“Then there’s going to be a cliff,” Kreiter said.
The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank is accepting donations online through its website.