On the Edge: ‘Hunger doesn’t take a vacation’

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This story originally appeared in the Jan. 20 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To get these stories first, subscribe here.

On the Edge is a regular feature that explores the challenges of the rising cost of living in Northern Kentucky.

Video by James Robertson | LINK nky contributor

Jerry Burford Sr., a retired truck driver and car salesman, stood in line at Be Concerned one morning in December. As he described his situation, he said the rising cost of living means his fixed income doesn’t go as far as it used to. 

“I just ain’t making enough money like I was before,” he said. 

Burford’s vision declined with age, preventing him from re-entering the workforce when money got thin. 

He gets some government benefits, but they usually aren’t enough to cover all of his expenses. He also takes care of his brother, who is disabled.

To make matters worse he said his landlord is increasing rent by $100, starting this month.

Nearby, Zach Johnson was also standing in line, awaiting a load of groceries at the food pantry. 

“We’ve been coming here for, let’s say, six months,” Johnson said. 

Johnson and his girlfriend work at an Amazon warehouse and bring home a total of $2,000 a month. It’s enough for bills, but little else. 

“It’s not a lot, but it pays our rent and the car insurance,” he said. “Those are our main bills. Whatever we have left, we get miscellaneous [things] like gas, stuff like that.”

He learned about Be Concerned from a food kitchen in Newport.

“We looked it up, and we found the place,” he said. “We’ve been coming here ever since. Just for some extra food to help us out.”

According to data from the Northern Kentucky Atlas, residents in Northern Kentucky making minimum wage needed to work at least 91 hours a week to earn enough for a “fair market price” two-bedroom apartment in 2020. In 2022, the Atlas estimates minimum wage earners need to work 103 hours per week to make rent. 

Terry Bales, a volunteer at Action Ministries food bank, sorts cans in the warehouse. Photo by Kaitlin Gebby | LINK nky

Be Concerned is one node in a network of food pantries across Northern Kentucky, many of which have seen an increase in need as the cost of groceries and housing increase amid thinning pandemic-era government assistance. 

“This has been an interesting year for us,” Andy Brunsman, executive director of Be Concerned said.

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Founded in 1968, Be Concerned is one of the largest food banks in the region, where Brunsman has served as director for a decade. It started as a Christmas store, where parents could get free Christmas gifts for their kids. The organization has since expanded to include several food pantries, a food delivery service for seniors, English classes for foreign language speakers and a couple of thrift stores. 

“One of the biggest things that happened is we started having more families come for help each month than we did in 2020 when COVID struck,” he said. 

According to Brunsman, Be Concerned served about 12,000 households in 2020 – a number that declined to 10,000 in 2021 as federal and state assistance like child tax credits and free school meals gave families a boost. As of December 2022, they had served 14,000 families. 

“So, the number of families is averaging about 1,500 a month for us right now,” he said. 

In previous years, Be Concerned averaged between 800 and 900 families a month during the end of the year.

The increase in need isn’t unique to Northern Kentucky, either. 

Nicki Rowe, marketing and communications specialist at the Freestore Foodbank in Cincinnati, reported an increase in numbers as well. Freestore supplies over 600 organizations in the tri-state area, including Be Concerned.

In November, she said Freestore “saw over 500 people on the just the first day” of the month.

Although the jump in clients isn’t uniform — some of the smaller institutions that LINK nky spoke with, like Action Ministries, another food bank in Kenton County, have not seen a significant increase in clientele over the past few months – many of the large food banks in the Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati region have strained under rising demand for their services. 

Volunteer Donna Remley sorts cans at Action Ministries. Photo by Kaitlin Gebby | LINK nky

Master Provisions, an independent, faith-based food warehouse in Florence that provides food for 257 different partner agencies in the region, provided insight into the scale of the problem as they tracked this year’s data. 

The organization began seeing steep increases in both the pounds of food shipped from their warehouse and the number of families they served in the final quarter of 2022. The number of pounds shipped increased by about 65,000 pounds from September to October, the largest single increase all year, and continued to climb in November, Master Provisions reported. 

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And while previous months showed an increase in clients ranging from a few hundred to 1,000, Master Provisions reported an increase of 7,500 new clients in a single month in 2022.

Those closest to the problem speculated the issue is the culmination of several factors.

“Rising costs of food in the grocery store, gas,” Rowe said. “Everything costs more.”

Brunsman agreed.

“You’ve got inflation. You’ve got the fact that a lot of public support was rolled back from families. The robust unemployment [assistance] was ended, the expansion of food stamps and the lowering of the income levels for families to be able to qualify for services ended, as well … It’s kind of a perfect storm of not having a ton of back-end support.”

In April 2020, Kentucky residents became eligible for emergency increases in payments in unemployment and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps). 

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a non-partisan research group, states that this increased SNAP payments by an average of $100 for Kentuckians when it was in effect. 

In April 2022, the Kentucky General Assembly passed Senate Joint Resolution 150, which officially ended Kentucky’s COVID-19 state of emergency. 

The law’s passage was contentious. Gov. Andy Beshear, who had publicly criticized the bill, promptly vetoed the resolution. About a week later, the legislature voted to override the veto, finally ending the state of emergency on March 22. 

This made Kentuckians ineligible for expanded SNAP payments and other federally-funded emergency programs related to the pandemic. 

All of this occurred as inflation was climbing. Since November of last year, the cost of housing rose by 7%, while food prices rose nearly 11%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For a comparison, general inflation rose 1.4% from December 2019 to December 2020, which was a typical annual increase prior to the pandemic. While inflation rates peaked in June and have now slowed, prices have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which calculates SNAP payouts for the states, did an annual cost of living adjustment, which bumped payout amounts for Kentuckians slightly. Today, a Kentucky family of four can receive a maximum of $939 per month for food, according to an August memo from the USDA. 

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Volunteers at Action Ministries sort food before handing it to clients at the food bank. Photo by Kaitlin Gebby | LINK nky

Children in low-income families have also needed to lean on nonprofits recently. 

Go Pantry, which is located in Florence, provides food packets for students and their families in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties. Each food pack contains enough food for a single weekend during the normal school year. Go Pantry saw about a 28% increase in the number of families relying on their services from the 2021-2022 school year to the 2022-2023 school year. Their current numbers sit at about 1,000 students per week. 

Families that rely on school lunch programs to feed their children during the week may go without on weekends and holiday breaks, so Go Pantry and similar programs feel acute demand around the holidays when school isn’t in session.

“We literally have children in our community that when they leave for Christmas break, they’re crying to the teacher,” said Beth McIntyre, co-founder and director of operations at Go Pantry. “Not because they’re worried about presents but because they don’t have enough to eat.”

She stood in the back of the organization’s warehouse, the conversation  alternating  between facts about child poverty in the local area and Go Pantry’s services. Most of the volunteers had left for the day. Stacks of food stood sentry along the walls of the warehouse.  

McIntyre said some schools have high populations of students on free and reduced lunches, a demographic that frequently overlaps with the Go Pantry. 

Each holiday Go Box, as they’re called, contains about $60 worth of food. This year they managed to give out 1,590 boxes, about 300 more than they were able to give out last year. 

On Jan. 4, a press brief from Seth Meyer, chief economist for the USDA, predicted that food prices would continue to rise throughout 2023. He stated that people can expect to pay 3% to 4% more for food this year.

Unless public benefits adjust for inflation, nonprofits are bracing for higher needs throughout 2023. For now, the solution in Northern Kentucky is asking for more support as the number of mouths to feed grows. 

“All the nonprofits need help,” McIntyre said. “Please reach out to a nonprofit and get involved. Hunger doesn’t take a vacation.”

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