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Monday, December 4, 2023
Dec. 4, 2023

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Inflation is hurting meal providers in Washington as need for food rises


When Robert Avery goes to the grocery store, he compares the prices, just like his mother taught him.

He’ll buy an extra loaf of bread or block of cheese if it will get him a deal, but because he’s currently living outside, he doesn’t have a place to refrigerate perishables. And there’s only so much food prep he can do on a bench, he said.

Over the last year, Avery has relied on Community Lunch on Capitol Hill from Monday through Friday to meet his nutritional needs. He receives about $300 in food benefits a month, but that’s hardly enough to cover his evening meals, he said, especially with inflation rates.

A recent Seattle Times analysis found that costs rose over 20% in the Seattle area over the last three years, putting it on par with increases in San Francisco.

“Without this, I wouldn’t be able to eat,” Avery said.

Last week, Community Lunch on Capitol Hill handed out 380 meals Monday, 420 Tuesday and by Friday the organization set a record: 527 meals in one day. The nonprofit has seen demand nearly triple from March 2020 to July this year.

As consumers feel pain at the checkout aisles, they’re relying more on meal providers, who are struggling to afford the increased demand as food and supply costs have skyrocketed thanks to inflation.

And to make matters worse, donations at Community Lunch, both monetary and in-kind food, are down.

The Washington Department of Agriculture said these rising costs have hurt food pantries and meal programs across the state as the need for food services continues to increase, according to Amber Betts, spokesperson for the department. They are made even more complicated by continued disruptions to the food supply chain, Betts added.

Over the last year and a half, Community Lunch’s expenses have risen by 71%, while funding has dropped by 36%.

Other meal providers throughout King County are reporting a rise in need, especially after extra benefits from federal food assistance initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program dried up in March for consumers. Other programs are reporting similar issues related to a decrease in funding thanks to donor fatigue and federal COVID-19 emergency relief dollars going away. And some say they could be forced to make programmatic cuts to try to close their deficit.

Community Lunch staff say they’re trying their best to hang on as common items like 12-ounce paper cups eat up more of their budget.

Jeff Wolcott, executive director of Community Lunch, used to buy 1,000 cups for $45. Due to inflation, the price spiked above $100, Wolcott said, and now they’re hovering around $85 to $90.

“We’ve got reserves, but you’re like ‘Where does this end?’” Wolcott said.

Since 1985, Community Lunch has been offering a nutritious meal to anyone who walks through its door. In recent years, it’s expanded from offering lunchtime meals four times a week to five. It currently leases space out of the All Pilgrims Christian Church on Broadway and East Republican Street, and it serves homeless people, people on fixed incomes and anyone who can’t afford a hot meal. Some customers walk, while others take buses to get there. The program feeds all ages, ranging from babies to people in their 80s.

The pandemic forced Community Lunch to switch to a takeout model overnight, and a few other changes have stuck.

For example, people used to only be able to eat one meal in person. Now, volunteers and staff package food in takeout containers and plastic bags so that guests can eat where they like.

Guests are also now allowed to take as many meals as they need. Some take a second hot meal or packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwich to eat later.

Wolcott said that since more low-income housing providers have moved into Capitol Hill, the meal program has also seen nearby tenants pick up multiple meals to take back to their neighbors.

Wolcott said they have no plans to limit how many people they serve or the number of meals they’re allowed to take. Instead, he’s hoping he can lead his organization of seven staffers to continue to meet the moment, while also finding new funding sources.

Other meal programs are mapping their own path.

Operation Nightwatch hit its capacity of 150 people per night this year, compared to serving around 90 this time last year. Deacon Frank DiGirolamo, who runs the organization, said if it weren’t at its limit, he expects it’d be serving around 200 people by now.

Hunger Intervention Program, which helps people in North Seattle and Shoreline, said its senior meal program numbers have doubled and sometimes tripled compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Srijan Chakraborty, co-executive director of operations for the organization, said it was expecting to see a dip in numbers after the pandemic’s toll lessened, “but then it never really went down.”

Nearing the end of its fiscal year, Chakraborty said, he’s certain it is going to end in a deficit, and he’s worried that it’ll soon have to make cuts.

Pike Market Senior Center received more than $40,000 in the first half of the year in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, administered by King County, to help it cover the elevated cost of food.

Now that money is spent.

“So, we are hoping for the best, looking around for vendors with good prices and seeking support wherever we can to keep that shield in place for low-income and homeless seniors who rely on [Pike Market Senior Center] for free meals seven days a week,” said Mason Lowe, deputy director of Pike Market Senior Center & Food Bank.

Two hours before Wolcott opens the doors Monday morning, chef Emily Pfaff inspects the nine silver trays holding sliced vegetables and grated cheese on a countertop in the Community Lunch kitchen.

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She’s hoping the potatoes and veggies, paired with a piece of pesto chicken or roasted cauliflower steak, will be enough to meet the day’s demand.

She’s doing what she can to make the most of what she’s got. Behind her, a large metal pot is beginning to bubble on her temperamental stove. The tops of carrots are poking over the edge. She’s got chicken bones and leftover parts in there to make a broth.

“I don’t know if there’s any health benefits to hot food,” Avery said during lunch Monday, “but psychologically, it’s critical.”

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