Volunteer Karen Clark arranges cutlery for meal pickup at the Community Dining Room in Branford.
That $38 chuck roast in the grocery store may cause sticker shock for some shoppers. But it’s especially worrisome for two directors of local food pantries and dining rooms.
The two food pantry directors are bracing for the fallout from the price hikes — especially for those who are on the “threshold,” just barely making ends meet. They want to be ready for a sudden influx of new clients.
Judy Barron, executive director of Branford’s Community Dining Room, said that demand for food and attendance was down during the pandemic. But she said she doesn’t know what to expect in the coming months.
“We felt that families were a little more secure,” she said, with help from federal stimulus checks, the eviction moratorium and the extension on unemployment benefits.
Volunteer Gretchen Schrader of East Haven packages a meal at the Branford Community Dining Room in Branford in this 2020 photo.
Now the numbers of clients is slowly rising, going back to normal.
“Then we see an increase in gas … the cost of food being astronomical, hiking up consistently,” Barron said. “So now we’re in the predicament of planning for the future again.”
Barron said she worries: “How is that going to affect our families?”
Amy Hollis, executive director of Shoreline Soup Kitchen & Pantries, which serves some 11 towns, said their organization will continue to meet the needs of the community, regardless of rising prices, but it won’t be easy.
“We’ll make it work because that’s what we do,” Hollis said.
“Everything as we know it, is extremely complicated,” Hollis said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Consumer Price Index “for all food increased 0.8 percent from August 2021 to September 2021, and food prices were 4.6 percent higher than in September 2020.” In the meat category, beef and veal “prices increased 3.3 percent from August to September 2021, pork prices increased 1.2 percent, and other meat prices increased 1.8 percent,” according to the USDA. Egg prices are expected to rise 3 to 4 percent this year, according to the agency.
Boxes ready for pickup outside Shoreline Soup Kitchens and Pantries’ Old Saybrook pantry.
Barron said the rising costs affect families living on the edge — working, but living paycheck to pay check with very little cash to spare, she said.
“We can’t shake the magic eight ball and predict the future,” she said. “We know overall we’re going to see that that affect our families.”
Barron especially is worried about those families who are “already pinching” with housing and medicine costs. These workers, she said, can be low-wage earners and have little or no assets.
“They already struggle and they don’t qualify for government programs,” she said. “They’re just above the threshold.”
Barron said they refer those clients in financial need to the Branford Counseling Center, Women & Family Life Center in Guilford and Branford Cares, so they “don’t spiral down.”
“The Community Dining Room prides itself on being more than a meal,” she said.
Clare Kenny, center, of Old Lyme and Lenny Lane, right, of Waterford load groceries into a car at a Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries’ location at First Congregational Church in Old Lyme Febr. 27, 2021.
Like her counterpart in Branford, Hollis said she worries about how the price increases will “impact individuals who are at a threshold — on the border of struggling.”
“If you can’t buy something because you can’t afford it, but you have to and you can’t fix your car,” she said. “Or your rent check — you don’t have the funds for that. It all snowballs together.
Barron said she also is concerned about local donors — the stores the Community Dining Room deals with directly, which may be buying less for their stores, and individual donors.
“We feel there’s going to be more limitations on what is available to us,” Barron said.
“We’re trying to get creative,” she said, “Now, part of our strategic plan is looking at nutrition overall. Getting away from the stigma that food pantries and soup kitchens don’t have the healthy meals — we absolutely do.”
“We going to be better focused on more plant-based, more vegetarian options,” she said.
Cars wait in line for a Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries location at First Congregational Church in Old Lyme.
Shoreline Soup Kitchen & Pantries has a far reach on the Shoreline — last week it shared some 28,000 pounds of food at its five pantries, with more than 1.2 million pounds shared to date. Some 2,000 meals are shared each month at eight meal sites, according to Hollis.
She said rising costs may increase attendance at their meal sites and pantries by making it harder for some families to afford food.
An employee of the Shoreline Soup Kitchen and Pantry program that serves Old Saybrook, Westbook, Clinton, Old Lyme and Niantic loads his truck with Thanksgiving food at the Connecticut Food Bank in Wallingford in this 2018 photo.
“At heart our mission is very straightforward — our goal is to make food and fellowship available,” Hollis said.
SSKP has options open to meet demand for food.
“We have the ability to purchase what we need, which supplements all the other donations that come in from our neighbors and also the food bank [Connecticut Food Share],” she said. “We get food donated directly to us. We purchase food from suppliers for produce, eggs.”
Hollis noted SSK&P has a strong relationship with its local partners, suppliers and supermarkets, which offer fresh produce and sometimes meat that is close to the expiration date.
“They’re incredibly generous with all those products. It’s still good food. It’s not expired. It’s food that needs to move” to make room for new inventory coming in, she said.
Anita Allen of Old Lyme prepares bags of groceries at a Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries location at First Congregational Church in Old Lyme Feb. 27, 2021.
“What people are dealing with, my heart goes out to everyone as we try to navigate it together,” she said. “We will continue to make sure there is food and fellowship at all of our sites.”
An official from the Connecticut Food Association said skyrocketing food prices should not affect donations from major grocery retailers to local food pantries and soup kitchens..
“This won’t impact them,” Wayne Pesce of the Connecticut Food Association said about donations.
But Pesce, the retail liaison with the state’s grocery stores and Connecticut Food Share, said rising food costs are the result of “almost the perfect storm” of events — many pandemic-related — “that are leading to real costs on your receipt.”
“It’s real,” he said about the costs.
Pesce said that, in terms of high food prices as an offshoot to the pandemic, “this is all coming off of labor, transportation and supply chain issues.”
He noted that early in the pandemic there were reports of workers at meat processing plants who were getting sick, causing a labor shortage. As a result, the meat producers couldn’t keep up with the supply to meet demand.
Take those issues and add them “into the food chain, you’re seeing a rising cost,” he said.
Pesce also pointed to a news report that predicted the price for the traditional Thanksgiving meal will be the highest it’s ever been.
For food suppliers and producers, it comes down to the high cost of fuel, labor shortage and the issues with the supply chain, he said.
Shortages of workers also are happening because of pandemic-related issues, he said, including people not being able to come to work if they have not been vaccinated or tested, in some cases.
But despite this, Pesce said food retailers in the state are not going to lessen their donations.
Some 80 percent of donated food to the Connecticut Food Share comes from retailers and suppliers in the state, he said.
“They don’t exist without us,” he said about the food banks.
Food pantries should not see the same shortages as they did at the height of the pandemic when panic buying cleared out store shelves, he said, as at that point retailers were having a hard time keeping up their donations, he noted.
“As long as people aren’t panic-buying, our ability to share with the food banks and food shares isn’t disrupted,” Pesce said.
“I don’t see the current situation being a big risk to them like it was maybe 16 months ago — anything we put in the stores was gone immediately. It was being bought off of our shelves so quickly, we couldn’t keep it in stock,” he said.
A spokesman for Connecticut Food Share, which distributed some 14 million meals last year, noted that “stores donate what they can’t sell as a result of minor damages or items close to code dates.”
“We have not seen decreases in donations at this time, but if stores do experience significant shortages over time we may see changes to donation levels,” Jason Jakubowski, president and CEO at Connecticut Foodshare, said via email.
“Our partners in the grocery industry and the farm industry have been extremely creative and generous during periods of shortages when finding ways to continue to support us. They have been incredible partners and we could not do what we do without them,” Jakubowski said.
“We’ve gotten to a better place,” Pesce said “One of the things was we got them hooked up directly with the manufacturers and suppliers around the state.”
For the upcoming holiday, the Community Dining Room is holding a “Thanksgiving Drive-by Food Drive” from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 13 at the dining room at 30 Harrison Ave. Items on their holiday wish list include: butter, cooking spray, olive oil, chicken or vegetable stock, low-salt canned gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans, crispy fried onions, stuffing, canned pumpkin and instant mashed potatoes.
The CDR also is holding “Giving Tuesday” Nov. 3., a happy hour and trivia game event at the Stony Creek Brewery from 5 to 8 p.m. To make donations, visit www.communitydiningroom.org.
Thanksgiving dinner will be offered for pickup the day before the holiday on Nov. 24 from noon to 1 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church in Old Saybrook. For more information, visit www.shorelinesoupkitchens.org/news/latest-news/746-thanksgiving-drive-thru-meal.
At the SSKP meal sites, guests can pick up hot meals to go; at the pantry locations, bags of food are prepackaged and include meat, grains, fresh produce and “shelf staples.” For more information, visit https://shorelinesoupkitchens.org/get-help.
SSK&P’s Annual Appeal is also underway; to donate visithttps://donatenow.networkforgood.org/SSKP.