The demand is staggering, but for those working to combat food insecurity in the Schenectady region, there is a growing sense that things are only going to get worse.
Local food pantries continued to see high demand this past year, serving hundreds of households per month. The need has dropped since the height of the pandemic last year when parts of the economy were shuttered and thousands were forced to seek unemployment benefits.
But while many have been preparing to celebrate the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday with abundant spreads, the number of households seeking food assistance has been steadily increasing.
Rising food prices brought on by a disrupted supply chain, coupled with increased fuel costs and stagnant wages, have led to a recent uptick in referrals to local food pantries and have kept steady the high number of individuals receiving benefits under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — which provides a security blanket for more than 2.8 million New Yorkers.
At the Northeast Regional Food Bank of New York, which stocks hundreds of pantries throughout the Capital Region and beyond, demand has grown 12% between July and November, forcing the organization to increase its charitable contributions goal by $1 million for the year.
The volatile markets coupled with increased demand have created a “perfect storm” that has forced the food bank to stay nimble and find new, less expensive ways to keep shelves stocked, according to Molly Nicol, the organization’s CEO.
“You put all of that together, it’s just a perfect storm with increased fuel prices, increasing people in need and reduction in supply,” she said. “It’s just not pleasant.”
Elsewhere, The Food Pantries for the Capital District, which partners with more than 65 pantries throughout the Capital Region, including four in Schenectady County, made 5,470 referrals to local food pantries throughout the region between January and October, including 3,367 in Schenectady County alone.
The organization made 4,139 Capital Region referrals all of last year, including 1,354 in Schenectady County, according to Natasha Pernicka, executive director of the organization.
Pernicka said the increase is largely driven by more individuals learning of the organization, which she attributed to community partnerships formed at the onset of the pandemic last year and word of mouth by those utilizing the service. Still, she said the numbers speak to the issue at large.
“If you look at our area, there are more than 80,000 people in the Capital Region considered ‘food insecure,’ ” she said. “So, with the increased costs for food, there are still a lot of people who just don’t have the resources to make ends meet each month.”
Several organizations have begun formulating plans to combat food insecurity in the Schenectady area, though those efforts won’t pay off anytime soon.
But with the future of key government programs approved during the public health emergency unclear — including enhanced SNAP benefits and a monthly child tax credit that has provided billions in additional funds to families across the county — those on the front lines are preparing for the worst.
“I think if that doesn’t continue, we are going to see a dramatic increase in need,” Nicol said.
Food prices have risen sharply in recent months and some items — including most meats, turkeys, cheese and graham crackers — have become increasingly scarce, Nicol said.
Difficulties securing workers at meat-processing plants and other facilities have driven up costs, forcing the food bank to find suitable replacements for certain items, she said.
The price for ground beef has increased by 27% in recent months, while the costs for shelf-stable milk and elbow macaroni have gone up 20% and 35%, respectively. The cost of toilet tissue, meanwhile, once in short supply last year, has increased by 43%.
Nicol said the food bank has done its best to find alternative sources, substituting turkey breasts for whole turkeys, finding different cuts of meat and replacing graham crackers with items such as Nutri-Grain bars.
But fuel prices have also risen sharply since January, when the average price per gallon of gasoline was $2.18 on the East Coast. As of Nov. 15, the price had increased by 35%, averaging $3.36 per gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
It’s all taken a toll on the food bank, where philanthropic staff have been working furiously to help cover the increased expenses.
Donations are down slightly compared with last year, but are still higher than those seen prior to the pandemic, Nicol said.
The organization is currently on track to raise $9 million this year, far more than the $7 million raised in years prior to 2020, but about $1 million short of its $10 million goal. The organization is planning to raise $12 million next year, Nicol said.
“We are trying our darnedest to maintain those relationships and keep those donors,” Nicol said. “Just like the pandemic, donations increased dramatically during COVID, and now they’ve tapered off a little bit.”
Trying to meet the demand
For Sister Betsy Van Deusen, director of community partnerships for the Catholic Charities Diocese of Albany, the demand is palpable.
“It’s just a sense in the air that we just desperately need this food,” she said.
Van Deusen organizes between 10 and 15 mass food distribution sites throughout the region, including a monthly site at Crosstown Plaza in Schenectady where thousands of pounds of food is distributed to between 650 and 700 households in roughly two hours. That’s the equivalent of 2,500 individuals.
The Regional Food Bank provides 16 pallets of food for each drive. Items vary from month to month, though each household gets between 15 and 20 pounds of food, Van Deusen said.
She said demand has been high throughout the pandemic but appears to have been steadily increasing recently. Van Deusen pointed to the lack of leftover supplies at the end of each drive. Last year, she said, there were typically leftover items that were donated to a local food pantry.
Van Deusen said she’s concerned about what will happen if the service is ever stopped or forced to reduce. Local food pantries, she said, simply won’t be able to meet the demand.
“If we’re serving 700 households in two hours, our pantries can’t accommodate 700 households in two hours. They can’t do it,” she said. “So, right now, there’s no place for this — people who are getting served in this way to go get food — unless we keep doing this.”
Still, Van Deusen feels many have moved past the issue, instead focusing on their own lives, which, in many cases have returned to normalcy following more than a year of disruption.
“One thing that’s been really clear to me is that people who are coming to the drive-thru need to come,” she said. “And the reason I say that is if you could afford to go to the grocery store, why would you sit in a line for some period of time to get random food?”
Other organizations have attempted to fill the gap in other ways, including home delivery.
At The Food Pantries for the Capital District, the need for home delivery has been on the rise. The organization has received thousands of requests for home delivery since beginning the service last year.
In October alone, there were 376 home-delivery requests in Schenectady County, Pernicka said.
“So most of the referrals that are going through our line are people with access barriers, barriers to access for either transportation or they’re under quarantine, or other barriers,” she said.
The resource has been a lifeline for thousands, but rising fuel prices have strained the service and gaps continue to persist, Pernicka said.
Grocery stores, for example, do not accept SNAP benefits for home delivery, putting the service out of reach for many who receive benefits and lack transportation.
“For those of us who are able to pay for grocery delivery, that is a wonderful service,” Pernicka said. “But if you’re using SNAP benefits to pay for groceries online, that delivery fee associated with the home delivery is probably too much for you to afford.”
Meanwhile, the number of individuals receiving federal food benefits has decreased slightly since the height of the pandemic but remains high compared with prepandemic levels, according to the most available state data.
There were 11,758 households — the equivalent of 22,167 individuals — in Schenectady County who received SNAP benefits in May 2020, the most throughout the pandemic. A year later, 11,218 households or 21,052 individuals received the benefit, according to the data.
In May 2019, 10,899 households, or 20,473 individuals, received the benefit.
The numbers have remained steady through August, the most recent month for which data is available, when 20,863 individuals from 11,162 households received the benefit.
SNAP benefits vary based on income levels and family size, though those who use the program have seen significant changes in recent months.
Earlier this year, the United States Department of Agriculture approved a 21% increase to SNAP benefits, the first such increase in more than four decades.
But the increase went into effect the same time a 15% boost to the program — approved by Congress as part of the American Rescue Plan Act earlier this year — expired in October, meaning households only received an increase of 7%, or the equivalent of $10 to $15 per person per month, according to Sherry Tomasky, director of public affairs for Hunger Solutions New York, an advocacy group that works to expand government support for programs aimed at decreasing food insecurity.
The increase was significant, but likely far less than what is needed since SNAP is believed to be the only means to secure food for millions across the country, Tomasky said.
“For many households that don’t have any earned income, SNAP is probably going to be their main source of food dollars,” Tomasky said. “And so for that reason, yes, these benefits, even though they have gone up and it’s a welcome change, it still doesn’t meet the need for many households.”
New York, meanwhile, has a public health order that allows all households benefiting from the program to receive the maximum allotment until the federal health emergency expires.
The increase in benefits “dwarfs” any of the recent changes, Tomasky said. But with the federal order set to expire in January, the future of the program remains uncertain, prompting concerns from groups such as Hunger Solutions.
“That’s the cliff we’re all worried about,” Tomasky said.
Addressing the concern
Rev. Amaury Tañón-Santos sees the same cliff.
As executive director of Schenectady Inner City Ministries, which has 30 food pantries throughout the city, Tañón-Santos sees a growing need every day.
In 2020, the organization served 58,625 meals through its summer meal program. This past summer, 57,632 meals were served, around 2,000 more than in the summer of 2019, according to data provided by the organization.
“It’s flabbergasting. And I tell people … high numbers in some industries are good to celebrate. These numbers for us are sobering numbers,” Tañón-Santos said. ”But at this point in history, I need to ramp up and strengthen my operations. Because everything I’ve seen, everything my pantry manager is seeing, everything my development people are seeing — everything is showing that these numbers will continue to increase.”
The Inner City Ministries, or SiCM, is hoping to develop further solutions to the problem through a $100,600 grant received earlier this year through the Schenectady Foundation’s Health Food Access For All program.
The foundation awarded $450,000 in grants to six organizations to help address food insecurity, including to the Northeast Regional Food Bank of New York to bolster its presence in Schenectady County, and The Food Pantries for the Capital District to continue staffing its food referral system.
SiCM, meanwhile, will be partnering with Schenectady ARC, Schenectady city schools and the local Cornell Cooperative Extension to provide culturally appropriate food to 30 households of various backgrounds for a 10-month period.
The goal is to study how the quality of life of each household — which would receive 15 meals per household member every two weeks — improves when purchasing food is not a concern, and then use those findings to apply for additional funding and advocate for new greater government support.
“What kind of brain space and what kind of wallet space will that free so that you can actually creatively attend to issues that poverty brings?” Tañón-Santos said.
The goal is to also bolster relationships with other nonprofit organizations to ensure that everyone is working together to serve the greater community, Tañón-Santos said.
But the aim is to identify the families this year and begin the study in January. From there, an additional study will be conducted to examine how provide solutions to issues discovered during the initial study.
Meanwhile, Tañón-Santos said he’s keeping a close eye on the public health emergency and the various government programs approved since the pandemic hit.
He said it’s vital the programs continue and for the community to step up its support efforts to ensure that organizations such as SiCM can continue to meet demand, regardless of how bad things get.
“Food will continue to be a significant expense for any household or any person in the foreseeable future,” he said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.