With inflation, supply-chain kinks, plight of Ohio food banks grows

By: - March 4, 2022 3:45 am

Shelves of canned foods sit partially empty. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

For millions of Ohioans, world events are making it harder to fill their pantries and refrigerators, an official who helps oversee the state’s food banks said on Wednesday. Those pressures will only increase pantries’ need for state assistance, she said.

The coronavirus pandemic had already put pressure on the state’s food banks as demand increased and supply-chain disruptions made it harder and more expensive to get food. Now the Russian invasion of Ukraine is poised to further squeeze global flows of wheat and fuel, exacerbating those trends, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.

Further complicating the picture is that the new scarcity of food is slashing commercial contributions to organizations that supply the neediest Ohioans, making them desperate for help.

“I would say that is an understatement,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “Overall, donations are down substantially. Before we went into the pandemic, private-sector donations from food manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and local food and fund drives would range from 45% to 50 % of all we had to distribute. Since the pandemic that has declined dramatically.”

Now the portion donated by commercial suppliers is closer to 33% at the same time that costs to purchase and transport food are growing. Consider:

  • Eggs that cost food banks 40 cents a pound in 2019 now cost 94 cents, a 135% increase.
  • Ground beef that cost $2.14 a pound in 2019 costs $2.84, a 33% increase.
  • Pasta has gone from 42 cents a pound in 2019 to 70 cents now, a 66% hike.

Also, a $2,000 per-child tax credit expired in December, plunging an estimated 10 million American children and 280,000 in Ohio back into poverty. Hamler-Fugitt said that of families receiving the credit, 59% said food was their No. 1 expense, so its expiration is increasing demand at Ohio food banks even as costs go up.

“Families that were standing in grocery store lines are back in our food pantries,” she said.

Federal data appear to support that claim. The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey estimated that about a month after the credit expired, 339,000 Ohio families with children sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the past seven days. 

Compare that to the period from Sept. 15-27 when the credit was in full force. Then an estimated 264,000 Ohio families with children sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat, the survey said.

If those estimates are accurate, that means food insecurity for families with children has leapt 28% since the expiration of the child tax credit.

In addition to all the other inflationary pressures on food, Hamler-Fugitt said she suspected another: price gouging.

“I hear from the farmers saying, ‘We’re not making any more money.’ How is that possible?” she said.

In his State of the Union Address Tuesday, President Joe Biden echoed that suspicion. He said concentration in the meatpacking industry is alarmingly high.

“Guess what, you got four basic meat packing facilities,” he said. “That’s it. You play with them or you don’t get to play at all. And you pay a hell of a lot more. A hell of a lot more because there’s only four.”

The White House estimates that those four companies — JBS, Cargill, National Beef Packing and Tyson Foods — control 85% of beef packing in the United States, 54% of poultry and 70% of pork. The administration says it’s making an effort to promote competition in those sectors and across the economy. 

But even if those efforts are eventually successful, Hamler-Fugitt said Ohio food banks need help more quickly. She praised the support they’ve gotten from Gov. Mike DeWine throughout the pandemic, but said the food centers need $183 million for supplies, operating costs and to upgrade their infrastructure.

Ohio has more than $600 million in unexpended funds from the American Rescue Act and about $500 million more is on the way, Hamler-Fugitt said. A DeWine spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.


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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.