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After lull, Christmas season sees return to high usage at Mitchell Food Pantry

Grocery prices, inflation spikes also challenging relief organizations

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Shown here is the sign of the Mitchell Food Pantry on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, located at 812 N Rowley St Suite C, in Mitchell.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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MITCHELL — There was a period in the past year when public use of the Mitchell Food Pantry was on the decline. Volunteers at the community organization had more food than they needed for the folks coming through the doors in need of a little assistance.

And then the economy changed.

“Well, wham! The grocery prices went out of sight,” said Karen Pooley, one of the directors at the Mitchell Food Pantry. “Now we’re back to where we were.”

The need for a helping hand in putting food on the table has returned with the recent spike in inflation and the rise in the price of groceries and most other general products. It’s kept the volunteers with the local organization busy the last few months stocking shelves and assisting shoppers.

Pooley said the pantry is now back to serving about 1,000 people per month, or about 350 households. That’s a return to normal numbers after use dropped to about 160 families per month.

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The reason for the decrease in usage at the pantry remains somewhat of a mystery, Pooley said, but she theorizes that stimulus payments associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the Child Tax Credit tax relief in 2021, allowed some families to put more money toward their grocery bills.

“That whole time, we dropped from about 350 households per month to 160 per month. That’s a good 30% to 40% down, and it kind of stayed that way after the stimulus. Then came the child tax credit,” Pooley said. “And we said now that that’s behind, maybe we’ll get busy.”

It took some time, but activity has definitely picked up again at the food pantry. And while people are again taking advantage of pantry services, now the pantry itself and its suppliers are dealing with challenges keeping their shelves stocked, ranging from those same high grocery prices to the weather causing transportation issues.

The pantry uses its relationship with Feeding South Dakota to buy groceries at a discount price. But even with the large food bank’s immense buying power, prices increases have to get passed down the line eventually. Coupled with occasional shortages and winter weather getting in the way of shipping, there is a lot to juggle to keep people fed.

Pooley said the pantry has worked around that by occasionally turning their eyes to more local sources.

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Karen Pooley, a director at the Mitchell Food Pantry, organizes cans of food at the group’s former location at 212 W. First Avenue in Mitchell in 2019 in this Mitchell Republic file photo. The pantry helps provide food to those in need throughout the year. The pantry is seeing increased usage during the 2022 holiday season.
Mitchell Republic File Photo

“They have a hard time getting food, and so if they don’t have it they can’t offer it, so we can’t buy it,” Pooley said. “So consequently we’re buying more locally.”

That includes watching grocery store advertising for weekly specials on items like Hamburger Helper, elbow macaroni or cans of pasta. But even that route has become difficult to navigate, as inflation affects those prices as well.

“(I’ve seen) about a 25% increase. We used to buy loaves of bread for 99 cents, now it’s up to $1.39. We’re spending a lot of money,” Pooley said.

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Feeding South Dakota, from which the Mitchell Food Pantry sources much of their supply, has a presence in 94 South Dakota communities and is dedicated to helping end hunger in the state. It uses its bulk purchasing power to acquire food to sell at reduced prices to food pantries, as well as to provide other hunger relief services.

Stacey Andernacht, communications director for Feeding South Dakota, said there has been a general increase in need over recent months. That’s not unusual around the holidays, she said, but the recent economic trends have likely led to broader overall usage.

“We typically tend to see an influx in individuals using our programs, whether it's our agency partners like the one in Mitchell, our hot meal sites or the mobile food distributions, during the holidays,” Andernacht said. “We’re actually seeing an over 30% increase in people using just mobile food distribution since last year. It has been a continuous rise in services month over month, even more than we budgeted for.”

Andernacht agreed that the end of pandemic era stimulus programs, including the end of free lunches for school students, is a likely contributor to increased demand.

“It started with the end of the pandemic era programs, which had elevated some above that food insecurity level. Coupled with inflation, the increase in grocery and fuel prices, and free student lunches going away - and then going up — we’re absolutely seeing a rise in the need,” Andernacht said.

Inflation has hit her organization, as well.

“That inflation is impacting our budget, because while we have great purchasing power, the price has gone up, so we’re able to purchase at a good price but in not as great a quantity,” Andernacht said.

Pooley said winter weather has affected food deliveries, sometimes causing a scramble at the pantry to get whatever is available whenever trucks can make it in. That issue has grown with the latest round of storms that have crippled much of central South Dakota, with residents there lacking access to food and other crucial resources as they brave deadly weather conditions.

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In addition to keeping their food pantry partners stocked, Andernacht said the serious situation in that part of the state has pushed Feeding South Dakota to focus additional attention there.

“Over the weekend we received an emergency request in the central part of the state. Grocery shelves are empty and people are in rural areas. We had to schedule 20 mobile distributions last week in rural areas. Those people don’t have the access, and now it’s urgent,” Andernacht said. “They need that food.”

Andernacht said getting food to the tables of those who need it is a matter of balancing the needs of everyone and the resources at hand. And while conditions right now aren’t ideal, Feeding South Dakota remains dedicated to getting that job done, she said.

Two grocery carts filled with food sit at the front of County Fair Food Store in Mitchell. The food in the grocery carts is being collected to help provide food for the Mitchell Food Pantry. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Two grocery carts filled with food destined for the Mitchell Food Pantry sit at the front of County Fair Food Store in Mitchell in this Mitchell Republic file photo.
Mitchell Republic File Photo

“There are so many pressures on the process and system right now, and we are continually assessing and evaluating how we're meeting these needs. It’s the holiday season, it’s a special time of year, a memory-making time of year. People come together over meals or make grandma’s casserole,” Andernacht said. “These are the things we want to make sure people facing hunger are able to do.”

Pooley noted that the Mitchell Food Pantry is making due with the resources that it does have. But economic conditions have slowed donations as some regular contributors may now be finding themselves stretching their own grocery budget.

It’s a challenging situation for everyone involved, Pooley said, but the Mitchell Food Pantry and its volunteers expect they will make due despite the situation. Pooley said the volunteer pool at the pantry is strong in numbers and remains dedicated to the service they provide. And the pantry will continue to work to stretch its own food dollar to keep the shelves stocked and ready for those who need it.

The pantry is used to thinking economically and stretching its own budget to get the most out of what it has available, Pooley said. But she knows from experience that, if push comes to shove, the community itself won’t let them down.

It never has before, she said.

“It is awesome to come out here and help because we didn’t used to be able to afford this kind of stuff,” Autumn Dalton said, as she placed a turkey in the trunk of a vehicle.

“We don’t do fundraisers for ourselves, it’s our churches and businesses and local people. There may come a time when we have to make a plea. We don’t because people are so willing to give. Mitchell is so generous to the food pantry. We don’t have to (plead), but we could, and if we did, I’m sure we would do fine,” Pooley said. “We’ll just keep plodding along. I just hope winter doesn’t last too long.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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