With the number of families in need of food in southeastern Pennsylvania already at record levels, now the cost of home heating and holiday expenses are driving demand even higher.
Locally, food pantry managers say they’re seeing longer lines of people waiting for food than they’ve witnessed in years, and the holidays exacerbate that demand.
The skyrocketing food instability that started locally and nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic has trended dramatically upward in many places including Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties in recent months, officials say.
That higher demand was clear at a recent food distribution held in Exeter Township by Helping Harvest, the food bank that serves pantries in Berks and Schuylkill counties.
The Exeter site had enough food on hand for 330 households, but ran out with about 75 families still in line, Helping Harvest President Jay Worrall said.
Some who hadn’t received food headed to another Helping Harvest distribution at Reading Area Community College that morning, but there were more people than groceries available there as well, and some families waited in line but left empty-handed, Worrall said.
“We like to think we’re meeting the need, but the demand exceeds our capacity,” he said. “There are actually still lots of unmet needs. That’s a sad thing.”
An estimated 17 million U.S. households experienced problems finding enough food in 2022 — a sharp jump from 2021 when government aid helped ease the pandemic-induced economic shutdown, a recent Associated Press article reported.
A new Department of Agriculture report shows significant increases in food insecurity across multiple categories.
Using a representative survey sample of roughly 32,000 American households, the report said 12.8% (17 million households) reported occasional problems affording enough food in 2022 — up from 10.2% (13.5 million households) in 2021 and 10.5% (13.8 million households) in 2020.
Helping Harvest distributed 700,000 pounds of food per month in July and August, but in October that amount rose to 900,000 pounds, and in November will likely total more than 1 million pounds, Worrall said.
Much of that recent increase is driven by the high cost of home heating, with families now spending so much on oil, electricity, natural gas or coal that they can’t afford groceries, he said.
Child care, medical, housing and prescription costs also have risen, officials said.
Many of those who received food from pantries once a month now need it more often, or are requesting more food while they’re there, Worrall said. Others are coming to food distributions for the first time.
The holiday season adds to demand as families struggle to buy presents and celebrate together, he said.
“Holidays for many of us are a time of joy, but when you’re surrounded by those trappings and can’t afford to do the things that you see others doing, it’s very hard,” he said. “People feel pressure to have Christmas for their family. It’s an expensive time.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, costing many their jobs, it led to the busiest year ever for Helping Harvest, as it distributed $14.5 million worth of food.
Demand came down slightly in 2021 as many returned to work, but over the last 12 months the organization has given out $15 million in food, topping even pandemic levels.
That’s up from $8.7 million in 2019, meaning the amount has almost doubled in four years.
Though the Berks and Schuylkill communities have been generous with increasing donations of food and money, government funding has not kept up with costs, he said.
But Helping Harvest is doing all it can, he said, realizing that families that were already struggling are in even more dire straits now.
“Inflation hits those people the hardest,” he said. “And once prices come up, they often don’t come down,” he said. “Those people were already in a bad place, and now it’s worse.”
Seniors on fixed incomes, low-wage job earners, single parents and families that include someone with disabilities are especially vulnerable, he said. Most of Helping Harvest’s families include at least one person who cannot work due to age or health issues, he said.
In Montgomery County, the Patrician Society distributes food out of its Norristown building, serving the entire county.
Executive director LeeAnn Rooney said they, too, are seeing more clients than during the pandemic.
That is in part because a federal increase in SNAP benefits — formerly known as food stamps — that was put in place in 2020 has since expired, severely cutting how much families were receiving.
The nonprofit organization was helping about 280 households per month pre-pandemic, but is now serving 956 households, the demand having more than tripled, she said.
“We’re bombarded,” she said.
Fortunately donors have stepped up, as have volunteers, since many more are now needed to accommodate the increase, she said. The organization also relies more heavily on Philabundance, the food bank serving the Philadelphia region.
While there are laws limiting the ability of landlords to evict tenants when the temperatures are dangerously low, some will kick out those who are behind on rent in September and October while they are still allowed to do so, a trend the Patrician Society is seeing again this year, Rooney said.
“We are having more people telling us they’re on the street now,” she said.
The organization sees the poorest of the poor from the Norristown area, she said, some struggling too much to even think forward to the holidays as they try to survive day to day, she said.
“They’re thankful just to get a box of macaroni and cheese or a bag of cookies for their children,” she said. “They really appreciate what they receive.”
Manna on Main Street in Lansdale is a food pantry serving Montgomery County and has seen increases in demand similar to what other organizations are seeing nationally and locally.
The nonprofit, which distributes bagged meals seven days a week and sit-down meals four times a week, and is helping more people than ever, said Sheldon Good, director of development and strategic direction.
Good said the increased demand has been caused mainly by the lingering effects of the pandemic on employment, income and housing costs, the sharp rise in food costs, and the post-pandemic reduction in SNAP benefits.
The average Pennsylvania household relying on SNAP saw a decrease of $181 monthly due to that cut, and it happened all at once, he said.
Donations to Manna have increased to the point that it is able to keep its shelves stocked with food and meet the record demand, he said. That includes contributions from individuals, faith-based groups, businesses and grocery stores, he said.
It is crucial that those food and monetary donations continue, though, as this year Manna’s Market served 1,600 different households, a 40% increase from 1,200 households last year, Good said.
Equally important is the willingness of people to donate their time, as Manna must fill 200 volunteer shifts each week, totaling about 22,000 volunteer hours a year to support the 30 full-time staff members.
“The support of our community is incredible,” he said.
Orion Communities in Phoenixville does not run a food pantry but assists low-income individuals and families with other needs, and it also has seen more people in financial trouble recently, spokeswoman Melinda Izzo said.
Orion provides subsidies for things like public transportation, short-term hotel stays or overdue utility bills throughout northern Chester County and the Pottstown and Spring Ford portions of Montgomery County, collaborating with other organizations that distribute food.
Many of those that Orion helps are in a position known as being ALICE — asset limited income constrained employees. In other words, they work but don’t earn enough to make ends meet.
In Phoenixville, for example, rental costs have risen so that anyone making $10 an hour or less — and especially minimum wage earners — cannot afford housing, she said.
“It’s a rental crisis,” she said.
For some, a slight increase in pay can make them ineligible for benefits such as child care subsidies they desperately need, she said.
“There are people saying, ‘Please don’t give me a raise,’ because they actually can’t afford it,” she said.
Izzo hopes that during the holiday season and beyond, more people will adopt the attitude of love thy neighbor.
“Every major religion has their own version of the golden rule,” she said. “What a difference it would make in our communities if we all embraced that so that everyone could have the same access to resources and live well.”
Operation Holiday was started in 1991 at The Mercury in Pottstown to help families going through tough times provide something for their children during the holidays. The mission of the program is to make sure there is food on the table and gifts under the
tree when Christmas morning comes.
Now in its 33rd year, the program has served thousands of families throughout Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties, expanding its reach in recent years to include communities served by Reading Eagle, The Times Herald, The Reporter and Daily Local News.
More than $91,000 in donations last year provided food and gifts for 451 children and 199 families, plus cash donations to food pantries in Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties.
This year, Operation Holiday has partnered with 19 agencies in the tri-county area. Agencies have referred 165 families with 419 children for gifts and food. There is no overhead with Operation Holiday and all funds stay local. Funds are collected and audited in a non-profit foundation account managed by staff of MediaNews Group who volunteer their time.
Gift cards to area grocery stores are provided to each family for food, so that they can purchase the fixings for a holiday dinner as well as staples for the pantry. Weis Markets is a partner with Operation Holiday and has assisted with food purchases and gift cards.
Gift cards for every child in the program 16 years of age or younger are purchased through Boscov’s and distributed in partnership with the referring agencies so that families can purchase gifts of their choice.
Operation Holiday does not accept families who have not been referred by an agency. Operation Holiday is funded solely by reader contributions. All contributions are tax deductible.
How to donate
Online donations are being accepted in a secure portal in partnership with TriCounty Community Network. Visit https://tcnetwork.org/ and click on the link for Operation Holiday.
Contributions can be mailed with checks payable to Operation Holiday to P.O. Box 1181, Pottstown PA 19464; The Reporter, 307 Derstine Ave., Lansdale PA 19446; Operation Holiday, 1440 Lacrosse Ave., Reading, PA 19607.
The names of all contributors are published in the participating newspapers as donations are received.
Please note whether a contribution should be designated as anonymous or given in tribute or in memory of someone.
Source: Berkshire mont