If you’ve done your shopping before, you may have noticed the cost of Thanksgiving dinner gone up this year.
For families already stretching to make ends meet, this could mean seeking help from local food pantries. Many Chicago area pantries are reporting a significant increase in demand as of late.
Kate Maher, executive director and chief executive officer of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, says she’s seeing a 35 percent increase over last year. These numbers are similar to what the depository saw at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that 35% has a much bigger impact this year due to inflation.
“The particular kind of inflation right now is a challenge, not only because it means more people are showing up to food pantries, it’s also a challenge because we’re paying more for the food that we have to deliver to those pantries,” Maher said. “So about 50% of the food we give out is food that we’re buying, and we’re spending a lot more money on that food.”
Maher says the depository has spent an extra $1 million on food this year due to inflation.
Another reason for the increased need is the withdrawal of support from government programs that existed at the start of the pandemic, Maher said.
“In the early days of the pandemic, there were some programs that provided food assistance to the government. We needed it,” Maher said. “But those plans have waned. And so we come back to relying on donated food and then the food we buy and that food we buy in the case of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Michele Zurakowski is the CEO of Beyond hunger in Oak Park, serving families on Chicago’s West Side and Chicago’s western suburbs. He points out that gas prices have also had a big impact on the households served by his organization.
“A lot of people just can’t keep up with inflation and especially gasoline,” Zurakowski said. “I think a lot has to do with our reliance on our cars to get work, and with gas prices being so high, that’s really been a factor for a lot of people.”
Beyond Hunger has seen demand increase by about 40%, Zurakowski said. One way the pantry is trying to create a more sustainable food system is by relying on local food producers.
“We are looking to buy food from local farmers and distributors so that allows us to move the money to create more of the system,” Zurakowski said.
Margaret O’Conor is executive director of Common pantry on Chicago’s North Side, which went from serving about 386 families last year to 650 this year.
“It’s a domino effect. People can’t afford food because it’s too expensive, and likewise, people can’t donate as much either,” she said.
Common Pantry also had to increase its food purchases by about 36%. O’Conor says they’re still receiving cash donations, but their rescue program through local grocery stores has seen a decline.
“It really just depends on inflation. Not being able to recognize that this time last year, what the landscape would have been like, that’s where we’re really seeing the impact,” she said.
As demand increases, food pantries also need more volunteers to serve communities. If you are interested in making a food donation, monetary donation or are interested in volunteering, you can find more information on the organizations’ websites.