EASTLAKE, Ohio — Northeast Ohioans are having a harder time filling their pantries. The combination of soaring inflation and the expiration of some pandemic government funds is driving more families and individuals to ask for food assistance.
“I never thought that I’d be asking for help, never. But I have to. I have no other choice,” said Mary Ann Natron.
The Willoughby resident recently began attending monthly food distribution events at senior centers in Eastlake and Mentor.
“I’m on my own, so it’s a struggle,” she said. “I’m only on social security. So this helps a lot.”
Pastor Larry Bogenrief of Willow Praise Church operates the distribution at the Eastlake Senior Center on the second Wednesday of each month, in addition to a monthly produce distribution at the church, a weekly meal giveaway and a pet food pantry. He noted up to a 30% increase in demand at each of the events in the past three months.
“There’s actually been more people responding now because of the inflation issues,” he said, comparing the demand for services to the influx of patrons at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tuesday, new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed inflation climbed to 8.5% in March, with costs for food, fuel, housing and other necessities straining American wallets.
The Labor Department said the 12-month jump in inflation is the biggest year-over-year increase since December 1981.
“It’s just unbelievable how things have changed in a couple of years,” said Charlie Winebrenner, a volunteer from Willow Praise Church.
Pastor Bogenrief added, “I think seniors are a little bit more aware of that because they’re pinching their pennies anyway. The decision about whether they’re going to buy their medication or they’re going to buy their groceries – that’s really the choice.”
According to the USDA, Americans over age 70 are paying about $57 more per month now than they were in 2021. Many seniors are facing challenges stretching their fixed income further.
“It’s tight, it’s really tight. It’s hard to make a go of it. So that’s why I’m here,” said Natron.
Families are also feeling the pressure. A $2,000 enhanced child tax credit expired in December, putting an estimated 10 million additional children at risk for poverty, according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Federal data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey found that in January, after the enhanced child tax credit expired, about 339,000 Ohio families with children said they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the past week.
Rising food costs may be compounding the issue. USDA reports show American families of 4 were paying $213 more per month in February 2022 than the previous year.
“Everyone is struggling, believe me,” Natron said. “If I get something that I really don’t want [in a food distribution], then I put it on a table where I live. I’m in an apartment. So I will share it with someone else.”
Pastor Bogenrief estimated nearly 20% of the people attending the church’s food distribution in the past few months have never sought food assistance in the past.
“It’s increased since people are feeling the squeeze of inflation,” he said. “We feel like the right thing to do is loving our neighbor by resourcing them.”
In an opinion piece for News 5's media partner, The Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio Association of Foodbanks Executive Director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt called on state lawmakers to support state flexible American Rescue Plan funds for Ohio’s hunger relief network.
She explained food banks throughout the state are seeing a shortage of volunteer support and community donations, as well as higher transportation and food costs.
Ohio and other food bank networks are urging Congress to help bolster pandemic food and nutritional support, especially for low income families and children.
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