In downtown Waltham, a line of people wends along busy School Street on Thursday afternoon. This is no holiday rush. Rather, it is the type of demand the nonprofit Healthy Waltham sees regularly during the food pantry it runs twice each month outside the city’s municipal building.
The pandemic brought greater numbers of people to food pantries — and high grocery prices have kept them coming back. Nonprofits in the Greater Boston area say demand is higher from this time last year because more people are relying on food donations to make up for the squeeze of inflation. And for those in the business of getting and transporting food to people who need it, rising prices and rising demand have been a double hit to budgets.
Waltham resident Wang Yihao, 83, arrived four hours early to be at the head of the line for Healthy Waltham's distribution. He said he and his wife were feeling pressure from the higher prices. “We have to come here to get charity," he said. "The increased price in meat hurts us the most, and that in vegetables has an impact as well.”
Several blocks down, 35-year-old Delmi Marroquim worried the pantry would run out of many items by the time she got there. She said her husband, a construction worker, recently found part-time work after a long pandemic shutdown, but feeding her young children became more difficult because of inflation.
“Food prices are now higher,” Marroquim said, “I can’t buy as much as before because they’ve gone up so much.”
Those increased prices are affecting greater Boston nonprofits, too. Sasha Purpura, executive director of the nonprofit Food For Free, said they have made more trade-offs than usual to keep its costs down. For instance, this year they “splurged” on cooking oil for many of their donation boxes. Normally a year-round staple, she said the cost of oil went up 10% in October alone. Rather than cutting back, the nonprofit devoted more of its budget to buy it.
“It is Thanksgiving, and we anticipate people will be doing a lot of cooking. It’s something a lot of families struggle to afford. So, we just made the decision to spend the dollars and buy the oil,” Purpura said.
The Greater Boston Food Bank, which distributes food to more than 600 partners, including Food for Free, has received reports from aross the state of rising demand. Cheryl Schondek, senior vice president for food acquisition and supply chain, expects the nonprofit will hand out 10% more meals this holiday season than last year.
With prices edging up all year, Schondek said the food bank started planning for Thanksgiving back in April. Back then turkey prices had gone up 10%; now they’re up 24% in retail stores. And, she said, the price of sweet potatoes is up 28%. Global shortages are also impacting many of the basic items they need.
“Not only were there truck driver shortages, there were supply shortages, such as aluminum cans, cardboard boxes, wooden pallets. That's all having a negative effect on what we're trying to get,” Schondek said.
As she watched Healthy Waltham workers stack up 700 frozen turkeys for handout, Operations Director Maria Dimaggio said supply chain problems make it tough to know what will be available.
“A specific example is milk and eggs,” said Dimaggio, “Sometimes we’re able to get those, sometimes we’re not. Also, meat, chicken is inconsistent. A couple of pantries, we could not get any chicken.”
And after several years of increased demands on donors in the pandemic, nonprofits hope fatigue hasn’t set in.
“People are tremendously generous during this time and our hope is that they understand as well that this need has not decreased,” Purpura said, “In fact, in many cases, it's gotten worse because of inflation.”
WATCH: Turkey with a side of inflation: On a food line in Waltham, Massachusetts.