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Donations to food banks can't keep up with rising costs

A Utah Food Bank volunteer carries groceries at a food distribution site on Dec. 21 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Rick Bowmer
A Utah Food Bank volunteer carries groceries at a food distribution site on Dec. 21 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Updated December 23, 2022 at 5:04 PM ET

Charitable giving stayed pretty much the same this year compared to last, according to data from Blackbaud Institute, which tracks philanthropy each year.

But with inflation, the dollar isn't going as far.

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"You would need more charitable giving to keep pace with the rising costs," said Una Osili, economist and Associate Dean of Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. "It's not enough that people are just giving at the same rates."

Plus, many households returned to their pre-pandemic giving habits, choosing to donate to other sectors such as the arts or education, she said.

Harder for a lot of people to donate

DC Food Project, a local nonprofit that helps supply K-12 students and their families with fresh produce and dried goods ahead of long weekends and breaks, has actually seen donations dip.

"During Covid, everyone was hoping and wanting to help if they could," said Lucie Leblois, 44, one of the food project's founders.

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Leblois, along with co-founders Alysa MacClellan and Katie DeGroft, started the organization in 2018 and saw it grow quickly during the pandemic.

"We were able to raise money as fast as we were spending it."

But this year, it's a different story.

"People, even if they're generous, may want to donate to other causes," said Leblois. "I think the food insecurity story was a really big one during the pandemic. And unfortunately, it still exists, and in fact is even worse."

Grocery prices have gone way up because of inflation, and access to food has gotten harder. Egg prices have risen nearly 50% this year, government data shows.

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"As a nonprofit, we faced that challenge, but we also know that the families we're supporting are doubly facing that challenge," she said.

Burning out staff, running out of food

Food banks in every region of the country are also dealing with high demand and rising food prices — and burnt out staff.

CAPI USA, a Brooklyn Center, Minnesota-based nonprofit originally called the Center for Asian and Pacific Islanders now focused on serving immigrants and refugees, is one of them.

CAPI, which operates a food shelf, is one of the state's only culturally-specific food providers. They focus on Asian, African and Latinx food groups, said Ekta Prakash, the CEO.

"Those foods are expensive," said Prakash, who makes it a mission to purchase fresh produce for CAPI clients. "It's easy to say you can run a food shelf with canned food, but it's not easy to do."

CAPI typically spends $50,000 per year for 400 lbs of food, said Prakash. But this year, she said they've spent nearly $100,000 for roughly the same amount of food, and they're struggling to meet rising demand.

"By Thursday, there is no food," she said.

They've had to reduce the hours of their food shelf, closing on Friday through the weekend.

Plus, while people are still donating food, financial giving by individuals and corporations has slowed, said Prakash. They need money to pay the cost of labor.

"Our staff are getting more burned out," Prakash said.

Need is almost as high as the worst of the pandemic

This is probably the most challenging holiday season that Second Harvest of Silicon Valley has experienced yet, said Leslie Bacho, CEO of the regional food bank.

"The need we're seeing in the community is reaching close to the level that we saw at the height of the pandemic," she said.

Since the surge in demand during the pandemic was tied to job losses, it felt temporary, she said. It's been a different story with inflation, which has pummeled the country for a year now.

"Everyone is really strained," said Bacho. "Both financially, because our network is being hit hard, and also emotionally, just from being in this emergency-response mode."

To contend with the rising price of milk - up nearly 15% over the year - the food bank now gives each family a half gallon of it per box. It used to give a full gallon.

"I try to keep going out to our distribution sites just to remind myself why we are doing this work," said Bacho, who enjoys connecting with volunteers and donors.

"I've tried to remind myself of all the joy that's there as we're all busily working away."

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Mary Yang
Mary Yang is an intern on the Business Desk where she covers technology, media, labor and the economy. She comes to NPR from Foreign Policy where she covered the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine and built a beat on Southeast Asia, Asia and the Pacific Islands.