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Mountain West food banks are strained by high customer demand and low supply

Will Walkey/Mountain West News Bureau

The shelves, pallets, and freezers at St. Joseph’s Food Pantry in Cheyenne, Wyo., have been looking pretty barren lately. Eva Estorga lists what she does have in stock.

“There's always breakfast, soups, fruits, vegetables, pastas,” she said.

Provisions are donated from a vast network of grocery stores, individuals, and government programs. Estorga coordinates operations with around 70 volunteers. The warehouse is the size of a soccer field and serves about 150 families a day.

“It's a way of caring for the community in a way that sometimes nobody else does,” Estorga said. “We get to put some kind of food on their table.”

But Estorga’s job has recently become more stressful as demand at St. Joseph’s has skyrocketed. Inflation has driven food prices up, and pandemic relief programs have come to an end. That’s made it more challenging for Wyoming residents to make ends meet.

Several pantries in the state have seen the number of customers double since the pandemic began, according to the Casper Star Tribune. Some folks who never needed food assistance before this summer are coming for the first time.

“The more people we have, of course, the more food we need, because we are giving so much out and we’re not getting as much in,” Estorga said.

Will Walkey/Mountain West News Bureau

St. Joseph’s is a 100% drive-through operation. Cars often line up around the block. Many customers in line share similar stories.

“I started coming here because I fell on hard times,” said Joanne, who preferred not to share her last name. “It just helps me get from one paycheck to the next.”

“It doesn’t take much to run through $100 worth of food stamps,” said Scott Leyo. “Having a place like this has just been a life-saver.”

“Everything’s so costly, [I] can’t afford it. The price of meat’s ridiculous,” said Raymond Mauch.

Most people get basic staples in their boxes: canned goods, protein and produce. But Estorga worries she’ll have to cut back in the near future.

 Usually, shelves a St. Joseph’s are fully stocked and stacked high. Things are a lot emptier than usual, according to Food Pantry Coordinator Eva Estorga.
Will Walkey/Mountain West News Bureau
Usually, shelves a St. Joseph’s are fully stocked and stacked high. Things are a lot emptier than usual, according to Food Pantry Coordinator Eva Estorga.

The food bank buys things to fill in the gaps when donations aren’t cutting it. In a normal month, they’d spend about $12,000. In August, they spent over $20,000, but that still isn’t enough. Two weeks ago, Estorga spent $1,000 just on jelly. It was gone in four days.

“We can only buy so much, so people will be seeing less in their boxes,” Estorga said. “I don't think the end of the tunnel is close. I think it's going to be tough for a while.”

Estorga’s story is common around the Mountain West. Food banks in Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico also report being squeezed this Summer.

Rachel Bailey heads the Food Bank of Wyoming, a major supplier for more than 150 partners statewide. She said shortages are ubiquitous across the country, and that it’s been especially challenging to serve such a large land area.

“When we are traveling such long distances across the state, to rural communities, you know, those fuel prices and transportation costs really add up,” Bailey said.

Inflation has a big impact on Bailey’s bottom line. A truckload of sweet corn, for instance, cost her just over $8,000 in 2021. Now it’s over $13,000. Potato prices have risen 71 percent in the past year.

But that’s not the only thing limiting supplies.

“One of the biggest challenges that we have right now is a 52 percent decrease in the USDA emergency food assistance program,” she said.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) supplies pantries across the country. During the pandemic, it got a huge boost from federal COVID relief funds.

But this summer, that money has run out – at the worst time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had been providing about 40 percent of the Food Bank of Wyoming’s supply. Now, it’s down to 23 percent.

“I think that the public needs to have awareness that this is happening – that there are decreased donations and that there's increased need,” Bailey said. “Because what we really need from our communities right now is support.”

 TEFAP Funding has sharply declined in the past year.
Will Walkey/Mountain West News Bureau
TEFAP Funding has sharply declined in the past year.

Bailey wants Congress to spend more on food aid next year. The nonprofit Feeding America also advocates for increased funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). They argue further investments to alleviate food insecurity could help the one in ten residents of the Mountain West facing hunger.

In a memo sent earlier this week, the USDA said it “anticipates an increase in TEFAP entitlement food funding, due to significant inflationary changes.” Congress will have to approve any budget increases early next year.

Back in line at St. Joseph’s, construction worker Dominic Fonseca is in his turquoise pickup truck with his pomeranian in the passenger seat. He’s disabled and diabetic, and said healthcare costs have added up. So he comes here twice a month for a source of healthier meals.

“What I do with what I can’t eat since I’m diabetic is I pass it to friends and neighbors and family if they want it,” he said.

Fonseca hopes others in line – and especially those that don’t visit food pantries – pass on what they can.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey