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Food relief groups across Virginia grapple with rising costs

A picture of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank sign outside of their building.
Screen capture
VPM News Focal Point
The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank serves about 110,000 people across the commonwealth each month.

Virginians continue to struggle with high prices, after inflation recently hit a 40-year high. In June, the consumer price index, a comparison of year-over-year pricing, hit 9.1%.  
Although the rate has begun to drop, it’s not moving fast enough to ease the economic concerns of some consumers, investors and monetary policy managers. The consumer price index for September indicated an 8.3% increase in prices over September 2021, driven by large increases in food and energy costs.  

As a result, Virginians are making adjustments in how they live, travel and shop. 

Janice and William Shelton live in Mineral. The couple lives on a fixed income and deals with a number of health challenges. Janice Shelton said they try to coordinate their doctors’ appointments to avoid driving any more than necessary. 

She also said she spends about two hours each time she goes shopping for essentials. 

“You spend more time in the grocery store trying to find cheaper brand-name stuff, like cereal,” Janice Shelton said. “Milk is off the chart. Eggs are out of sight. So, to me, [I] think this inflation has really affected everyone.”  

The Sheltons, who are both retired, are willing to spend a little extra on gasoline to reach the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in Charlottesville, about an hour from their home. This pantry’s food distribution site is open several days a week and provides fresh, healthy food at no cost to Virginians in need.  

The pantry, which Janice Shelton calls the best around, has seen an increase in clients from across Central Virginia during the past year. And inflation has made things more challenging for those who donate both food and money.  

“We have seen a reduction in donations of meat, in particular,” said Jane Colony Mills, executive director of the nonprofit. “[The amount of] produce keeps getting higher. About 34% of what we’re getting in donations is now fresh produce, which is fantastic, because that’s what we want to be getting out. But meat has dropped way down, and I think that’s because of the cost.” 

Mills said the agency is covering a hefty increase in fuel costs for the trucks that pick up their donations. And, she said that the electric bill for their refrigerators and freezers has risen significantly. 

Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry is a partner agency of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, which has its primary distribution center in Verona. The organization’s food sourcing manager, Greg Knight, said it's dealing with price increases as well. 

“Last spring and summer, to bring a load of fresh produce from Florida to here would have run us about $3,500. This year, we experienced rates of $5,000 to $5,500. So, a significant increase,” Knight said. 

Knight oversees procurement of about 30 million pounds of food each year for the food bank, which currently serves more than 100,000 people each month. 

“Six of the key items that we keep in our purchased inventory at all times — the cost on those, in particular, has risen anywhere from 29% to 45%,” Knight said. “Canned peaches, for instance, very difficult to find right now. In the past, that was the main canned fruit item that we kept on hand. … But now, the peaches are — either you can’t get them or the cost is so much higher.” 

Knight explained that the USDA also contributed considerably less this year, due to inflation.  

“Right now, we’ve got about 60% less inventory on hand from the USDA today than we had this day a year ago,” Knight said. “So, that’s where inflation is going to impact us even more, because if we’re to replace that food, we either have to get it donated or we have to purchase it. So, the purchase will be a higher cost.” 

Blue Ridge is one of 200 food banks affiliated with Feeding America, a national nonprofit that feeds more than 46 million Americans annually through soup kitchens, food pantries and food banks. Blue Ridge CEO Michael McKee said the problems of food insecurity go beyond inflation, beyond COVID-19 and reveal a more serious problem that America must confront. 

“The reality is people who are turning to food pantries for food assistance are doing so because they just don’t have enough money to provide for themselves through conventional means,” McKee said. “Whether it’s because their housing cost is so high or childcare is so high, the insurance on their home or car insurance is so high, the cost of food is so high, at the end of the month, there isn’t enough to go around. And so, they’re able to turn to a food pantry and get really wholesome, healthy food for themselves, their children, members of the household.” 

McKee said before the 2007 recession, about 70,000 people each month relied on support from Blue Ridge Area Food Bank and its partner agencies. During the recession, that number reached 120,000. Right before the pandemic, it was back to 103,000 per month before peaking at 130,000 during the COVID crisis. Now, he said, it’s right at 110,000. But with inflation, it’s likely to climb higher. 

Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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