Food insecurity remains high in York County: '2020 was just so extraordinary'

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

Fewer families in the last month have turned out to the York County Food Bank — despite food insecurity remaining high, officials said.

Since September, the demand for food security services has dropped by roughly 10%, according to York County Food Bank CEO Jennifer Brillhart. 

"People are wary about coming to receive food — we do hear the message a lot that people don't want to take food," she said. “We can look at the numbers month by month, but generally we know the need is far greater."

Brillhart said the need generally picks back up as families prepare for winter holidays.

While the stigma associated with receiving food has diminished over time, it's not going to disappear completely, she said. Often times, if a family has money to spare, they would rather use it to buy groceries than put it toward utilities or medical bills, she said.

Ricardo Cabassa of York City, left, accepts a food item from Harvest of Blessing volunteer Randy Christy at the York County Food Bank Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Harvest of Blessing operates out of the York County Food Bank warehouse on Princess Street in York City. Bill Kalina photo

Because of this — even through colder months that typically generate more turnout — numbers have slightly declined.

These trends can be seen nationwide, too.

Statistics reveal  that bulk food distribution numbers from hundreds of food banks across the country have declined since the start of spring this year. But, according to The Associated Press, the amount of food being distributed by the nonprofit Feeding America’s more than 200 affiliated food banks still remains more than 55% above pre-pandemic levels

And  industry leaders who work face-to-face with hungry families daily say that need isn't going away.

Following a year of extreme demand at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the flurry of programs and support has teetered off. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farmers to Families Food Box Program created during the   pandemic has been discontinued.

More:York County food banks getting a boost from $300 million USDA program

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank — which relied on the support of that USDA program — now foots the bill for additional groceries to distribute to its county partners.

CPFB Executive Director Joe Arthur said the scale of the need in 2020 "was just so extraordinary."

"Even during the Great Recession," he said, "we haven’t seen that great increase in such a short time. It overshadows the scale of need that's out there."

In a typical, nonpandemic year, Arthur said the CPFB would spend $3 million to $4 million in food.

This year, the nonprofit is spending more than double that amount.

“Even though demand is now more reasonable, this year we're still having supply issues," he said. “We're just in this lull right now that we have to work around. We can't just go around to people in need and say ‘Hey, we're stocked out' — that's not what we do here."

Harvest of Blessing volunteers Anthony Harris and Joann Holley pack items at the York County Food Bank Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Harvest of Blessing operates out of the York County Food Bank warehouse on Princess Street in York City. Bill Kalina photo

Arthur said it's tricky to quantify just how many people are turning out to their local food pantries because of  sharp, unexpected increases last year skewing statistics slightly.

In 2019, roughly 315,000 people sought services from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. That number jumped to about 380,000 at the height of the pandemic last year before dropping to an estimated 340,000 in 2021.

Even if fewer people are turning out this year, the need is still far greater than it was pre-pandemic.

“It's still a high level of need, but thankfully it's not at levels at the height of the pandemic," Arthur said.

So, how do organizations like the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank cope?

Like most nonprofits: with donations and support from the community.

“We're so thankful for the support from our community," Arthur said. "We want to thank people and our volunteers — but also to remind everybody that there is still a fairly high level of food insecurity, and it hasn’t gone away.”

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.