Inflation, rent increases drive rising demand at food banks in New Jersey

Grocery banks across New Jersey are recording continued increased demand this holiday season, with officials attributing the causes to persistent inflation and high rent increases.

Fulfill, a Neptune-based food bank, recently gave away more than 13,000 turkeys for Thanksgiving in Monmouth and Ocean counties alone, said Triada Stampas, the nonprofit’s president and CEO.

Demand has remained high throughout 2022. Because of the increase in seasonal employment, people typically use less food supplies during the summer months, but that decline hasn’t happened this year, Stampas said.

She estimates that demand has increased by about 10% this year, but the months between January and July saw a 60% increase. “Rather than seeing the slump, we saw a plateau,” she said, and now “we’ve seen that even in the fall, the everyday pantry needs to grow.”

The surge was due to a combination of inflation and the end of several government support measures, including stimulus payments, the child tax credit and rent subsidies, she said. And while unemployment figures are low, salaries have not kept pace with the cost of living, she said.

“It’s a double win for low-income families going on vacation,” Stampas said. “And holiday meals are really expensive.”

In New Jersey, an estimated 657,320 people — including more than 175,000 children — were food insecure in 2020, according to state data. Food insecurity means that a person does not have consistent access to adequate food for a healthy, active life.

The highest rate of food insecurity in 2020 was recorded in Atlantic County, according to state data. Overall, the state has the seventh lowest food insecurity rate.

Stop and Shop donates free groceries to families on Thanksgiving

Volunteers load boxes of groceries into a van that arrived on Friday, April 18.John J. LaRosa | For NJ advance

Carlos Rodriguez, the president and CEO of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, said he’s seen increases of at least 15% over the past year, with a peak of 40% in the early summer months. High fuel, food and housing costs remain a problem across the board, he said.

“Unfortunately, the truth is that for many of the households that are or are at risk of food insecurity, rent is the number one priority,” Rodriguez said, noting that in some cases he has seen “exorbitant” triple-digit rent increases.

“You have to pay (for) your house or your life gets even more complicated than having to give up the nutritional value of your food or having to give up food as a parent so you can feed your kids,” he added.

Fred Wasiak, the president and CEO of the Food Bank of South Jersey, said prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit served about 47,000 people a month. And in recent months, demand has skyrocketed: The Tafel now serves around 100,000 a month.

He said it’s unclear when or if demand will slacken. And even though the non-profit organization is serving as many people as it did in August, now is the time — around the holiday season — when “people’s hearts open up.”

Stop and Shop donates free groceries to families on Thanksgiving

A volunteer loads a tray of cupcakes and other desserts into a Fulfill Food Bank car during a Thanksgiving food drive in Neptune on Friday, November 18, 2022.John J. LaRosa | For NJ advance

In Paterson, officials from Oasis – A Haven for Women and Children, a local multi-service poverty organization, are seeing clients with eviction notices, said Laetitia Cairoli, development director for the nonprofit.

The non-profit organization offers free education, counseling, diapers and more, as well as two hot meals a day and take-out bags of food. About 15 customers walked in in a typical week, Cairoli said. Now they’re seeing nearly 25 walk-ins a week for the past few months.

“Obviously when food prices and gas prices go up, people at the lowest levels don’t have extra wiggle room in their budgets to cover those kinds of expenses,” she said. “So I think people manage to get food, for a hot meal, get food bags.”

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Brianna Kudisch can be reached at [email protected].