‘Unbelievable’ demand

Jen Sieve-Hicks with the Buffalo Bulletin, via the Wyoming News Exchange

Rising food prices pinch households, food pantry


BUFFALO — At a time when demand for food assistance is at unprecedented levels, local organizations are also reeling from the increased costs of keeping food on their shelves.


“We have doubled our patronage in the past year, and it's causing quite a bit of budget constraints," said Pitchy Gammon, chairperson of the Bread of Life Food pantry. “We have to stock after every shift, whereas we were stocking every two or three days." 


Gammon said that, in 2022, the pantry served 8,000 people — roughly twice as many people as the year before.


Gammon said the pantry is adding about 20 new patrons a week.


"It's unbelievable," she said.


The story is much the same for Friends Feeding Friends, an organization that works to ensure students have meals over the weekends.

At the beginning of the school year, the organization was providing weekend bags of food to about 130 students each week. Now that number is up over 150.


"We're seeing a lot of increased need," said Breann Waller, Friends Feeding Friends assistant program coordinator. "With the price of food, it's affecting a lot of people." Gammon said increased demand, coupled with the rising costs of stocking the pantry shelves, has led the pantry board to make some tough decisions. 


"We've cut our bag limit and we've removed the shopping carts, and we're doing hygiene and baking supplies only monthly because we can't afford to feed everyone," Gammon said. "When our stock is out, we'll cut dishwashing soap, laundry detergent and toothpaste." 


The pantry will continue to stock feminine hygiene products and diapers.


"Those are our priorities," she said.


Sharon Miller, Friends Feeding Friends program coordinator, said that demand for food assistance is up statewide. Miller said that Friends Feeding Friends purchases food through the Wyoming Food Bank.


"It's getting harder and harder - you just have to be there the first day of the month and just jump on the ordering or everything is gone," Miller said.

In addition to providing bags of food for the weekend to students who may be experiencing food insecurity, Friends Feeding Friends has mini pantries stocked with snacks in six local schools. 


“Teachers know which kids are hungry," Waller said. "I'm sending over 450 individual snacks to Buffalo High School each week." 


Waller said that while some of the older students are reluctant to take home a bag of food for the weekend due to a perceived stigma, she knows Friends Feeding Friends is reaching a lot of students through the snacks they offer.


"In the BHS, we have more of a problem of kids saying, 'Yes, I need a bag of food each weekend.' But they know which counselor has the pantry snacks for them," she said. 


The increased demand comes on the heels of a U.S. Department of Agriculture decision to stop providing free breakfasts and lunches to all students.


In response to COVID, during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, the USDA provided waivers to schools that allowed all students to receive free lunches and breakfasts. That waiver expired at the start of the current school year.


The impact was pretty immediate, according to Ricci Sanders, nutrition services director for the district.


Through January, the district served almost 20,000 fewer lunches and more than 7,000 fewer breakfasts than last year, a decline of 30% and 40%, respectively. 


“It is because meals aren't free anymore," Sanders said "That's not something we decided as a district. That came down from the USDA." 

Sanders said that the district has returned to serving about the same number of meals each month as it served in January 2020 - before COVID.

With the waiver program no longer in effect, families have to apply for free and reduced lunches. But that's not a perfect system either - some families don't qualify and other families choose not to apply.


“I think with increases in groceries, utilities, etc., everyone is a little more strapped," Sanders said. "And the application only takes into account your gross income, other income and household size. It doesn't take into account if you may have monthly medical bills or other family expenses." 

Miller said that she believes that some of the increased demand that Friends Feeding Friends is experiencing is due to the discontinuation of the USDA waiver program. 


"We're concerned too," Miller said. "During COVID, USDA was paying for all the breakfasts and lunches and that went away. So parents have to apply for free and reduced lunches and I don't think we're reaching all those kids." 


Gammon said that, despite the challenges of meeting the increased demand, the pantry remains committed to its mission. 


"We're trying to expand our capacity; we're adding new volunteers," Gammon said. "We are billed as supplemental aid, but our patrons are really desperate."


This story was published on Feb. 16, 2023.


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