Mike Cerino was drawn to the sobbing.
Visually and internally racked with despair, a woman in crisis stood in a room of assorted canned and packaged foods and other life-sustaining goods at the Warminster Food Bank. As she stared almost hypnotically at the sustenance, her tears fell.
“I saw her crying and approached her to see if there was anything I could do to help,” said Cerino, president and CEO of the food bank. “She looked at me and told me she had lost her job. Then she said, ‘You know, I used to donate here. Now …’”
Now, unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances had caused the woman to join those neighbors she had routinely helped. Now, she was worried particularly about herself. She was emotional, and her sense of pride and security had taken a blow. In an instant, she found herself living on the other side of food insecurity. A woman of giving was now looking to receive.
“I’ll tell you another story,” said Cerino, a Lower Moreland native who has been affiliated with the 64-year-old food bank for 25 years. “There was a man who was a guest of ours — and I like to use guest, not client — who came to us. He was on a new blood pressure medication that cost $300 a month. He told me that due to that cost, he was taking his medication every other day, not every day, as he should have. I told him we could give him a basket that had $250 worth of food, so he could then take his medication every day. He thanked us. We were able to ease his choices. The cost of everything keeps going up, and it’s impacting people.”
Sometimes to the breaking point.
Cerino was asked about the emotional aspect of his position, about how he deals with witnessing and addressing so much need at his doorstep daily.
“I choose to use my sensitivity in a way, to channel it, to help these people, and not get overly emotional,” he said.“The increase in the prices of food has even driven moderate families to families of food insecurity. Our fiscal year ended on June 30. We served 1,758 families, that amounted to 16,000 pounds of food. The year before, we served less than 600 families. Demand is up, but donations soften in the summer. What used to be a $50 check is now $25. We’re dealing with budgetary constraints. But by the grace of God, we get it done, with the help of our church partners and all our partners, like Giant, the Rotary.
As the prices of food, gas, and other essentials have soared locally and nationally, so has the number of visitors who rely on food pantries and food banks to survive. With inflation at a four-decade high, American households are feeling the pinch of higher prices across a range of products and services, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The price of food at grocery stores in March was 10 percent higher than a year earlier.
A recent survey by Feeding America, which runs a nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, found that around 85 percent its food banks saw demand for food assistance increase or stay the same in February compared with the previous month. That represented about a 20 percent increase from the previous survey in January.
A survey by Urban Institute found that 1 in 6 adults rely on charitable food, a share that continues to be above pre-COVID-pandemic levels.
The drumbeat of increasing demand has been deafening locally. Amanda Musselman, food program manager at the Bucks County Opportunity Council, reports pantries in the county experienced a 38 percent increase in visits from January (5,119) to May (7,060). Twelve percent of those served in May accounted for their first visit to a pantry in the BCOC network.“Our pantry partners have seen an increase in foot traffic due to the rising costs,” said Musselman. “And at our farmers market, in January we served 550 families weekly. In the last week of June, 750 families were served — an increase in attendance of more than 36 percent. There has been a definite increase.”
“Mary” — she asked not to have her real name published for privacy — stood with two of her four children at a window outside the Keystone Opportunity Center food pantry at 104 Main St. in Souderton. Her household includes three additional family members. She visits the pantry once a month, as she has for the past 2 ½ years to make ends meet, ends that seem to be drifting further and further apart due to inflation.
“Because of the prices of everything going up and up, we struggle sometimes,” she said, holding the hands of her children. “Sometimes, because of the lack of money, we don’t know if we’re going to spend it on food or pay for gas or other bills. So, it’s good to have the pantry here to help us. They help us save a lot of money. We get food here, so we’re able to pay our bills. I don’t know where we’d be without the pantry helping us.”
As Mary spoke, pantry president Cindy Dembrosky’s face was awash with empathy. Like Cerino, her pantry in Eastern Montgomery County has also experienced an increase in visitors due to skyrocketing prices of just about every daily need.
In the pantry, many of the shelves are close to empty.
Seated in a back office at the pantry, Dembrosky is surrounded by shelves of cloth bags of food ticketed for low-income families. She presents a sheet of paper with data confirming the increased need. From June 2021 through June of this year, the Souderton pantry’s households served per month has increased from 141 per month to 204 per month. From May to June of this year, an additional 21 households have visited the pantry.
Dembrosky has run the pantry for the past 12 years. She speaks about the data and a sadness falls upon her.
“Donations are down, and the need is up,” she said. “We see lots of people who are seniors on fixed incomes, paying $900 a month for rent. Then when prices rise, they start to feel the impact of those bills and of buying food and paying for prescriptions.
“One lady, 76 years old, has come here for a long time. She recently had to move in with her lady friend to get by. Another client is a woman who couldn’t afford gas to get her kid to the doctor. So, we pushed for people to donate gas cards. We got her some. Imagine that. She didn’t have enough money to get her kid to the doctor. Imagine that.”
The Souderton pantry receives help from donations from local businesses, area houses of worship, and generous citizens.
“And because we’re a government pantry,” Dembrosky added, “we receive grants. But with prices going up all the time, there’s always more of a need. We have a lot of empty shelves.”
The line forms early at Penndel Food Pantry on Durham Road. Men and women of different ages standing in line in the unforgiving sun and draining heat for food. One holding a newspaper; another checking their smartphone; another with arms folded; still another wondering how this can be happening in bountiful America: Standing in line for food they cannot afford at the market. The price one pays for the prices one cannot pay.
A man shuffles his feet as he moves a small grocery cart across the front porch of the pantry. He wears a U.S. Army veteran cap with a message — Proudly Served — on the brim. A 60-ish woman says she comes to the pantry when she needs help, when tough times get tougher, like now, when prices are, in her words, shooting toward the moon.
“These prices now are not just challenging, but a burden on all of us here,” she said. “Without the help we get, lots of us would go to bed with growling stomachs and a head full of headaches.”
Stephen Keller was named pantry coordinator in June, after three years as a volunteer. More is a constant term: The more food prices rise, the more folks arrive at his door.
“There’s been a noticeable increase in the number of people coming to the pantry since food prices have gone up,” he said. “What used to be 40 to 60 people is now 60 to 80. People go from being OK to standing in line here.
“We’re fortunate that our partners have helped more than ever. Giant and Shop Rite weekly. Wegman’s drops off food. Churches, synagogues, and Philabundance. They know people fall on hard times. They need our help.”
As clients roll their carts to the front door, Keller emerges. He tells them what they have special that day beyond the usual foods. He informs a woman they’re all out of fruit juice, but asks if she’d like some chicken. “Chicken!” she said, gleefully. “Oh yes, I’ll take some chicken!” Keller places the bags of food into her cart. She smiles, thanks him, and rolls away until next time in bountiful America.
Time was when food pantries existed to serve folks in their community mostly in an emergency.
Today, due in great part to wages lagging behind the cost of living, people are left to budget charitable food to their monthly budget.
The U.S. Consumer Price Index for food rose by 9.4% between April 2021 and April 2022, the largest 12-month increase between consecutive Aprils since 1981. Such an increase has left women to stand at pantry windows with young children in tow and tell volunteers thank you. Folks are left to cohabitate with friends to combine resources. They are left to stretch medications to the point of danger. They are left to weep at a food bank, where shelves they once helped stock, they now help empty. They are military veterans waging a different kind of fight at home.
Outside the Penndel pantry, a woman offers thanks not simply for what she receives there, but for what is not taken.
“Even though I’m somebody who needs their food, they have never ever taken away my dignity, my self-respect,” she said. “I thank God for that.”
Source: Bucks County Courier Times