COLUMBIA — Unemployment and lower salaries, combined with the rising cost of food and fuel, have sent tens of thousands more mid-Missourians to food pantries in the past five years.
"Demand has gone through the roof," said Peggy Kirkpatrick, executive director of the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri.
In 2008, the Food Bank distributed 21.7 million pounds of food in Missouri. Just two years later, that number was up 5.7 million pounds, to 27.4 million. In the past five years, the Food Bank has gone from feeding 75,000 people a month to feeding more than 100,000, Kirkpatrick said.
The Food Bank serves 32 counties, including Boone County, which has 13 individual food pantries. The bulk of the bank's food supply comes from the surplus of manufacturers such as Tyson, General Mills and Kraft.
But, Kirkpatrick said, three major factors have pushed the national availability of this surplus food down. First, food manufacturers have become more efficient, leading to less waste and therefore less leftover food.
Second, government tax incentives for corporate food donations haven't kept pace with inflation, and a new global demand for food means corporations have less incentive to give away their surpluses.
Finally, Kirkpatrick said, a bad growing season this year led to lower harvests and a national shortage of certain food products, such as peanut butter.
The Food Bank has managed to keep up with the rising demand, said Rachel Ellersieck, communications coordinator for the Food Bank. But its budget has ballooned as the drop in available food pushes up the price and the transportation fees the bank must pay for its supplies.
Last year, the Food Bank's budget was $3 million. This year it's $3.5 million; Kirkpatrick said its costs will almost certainly surpass that by the end of the year.
The increasing demand for food assistance has caught the attention of Mayor Bob McDavid, who will hold a press conference at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Food Bank.
In the midst of this food crisis, Kirkpatrick and many local food pantries speak of a positive byproduct: growing donations and generosity from Missouri residents.
Sharron Eichler is the volunteer director for the Shepherd's Basket Food Pantry in Columbia, which receives 20 percent of its food from the Food Bank and the rest from 13 churches in the Little Bonne Femme Baptist Association.
She said that even as demand has risen, the pantry has never gone empty.
"The people do have a real heart for giving in this organization," she said. "Anytime we get short, I go to the board and ask for help and churches come through."
Kirkpatrick confirmed this impression, pointing out that food drive donations have increased over the past few years, along with volunteer support and monetary donations from businesses and individuals.
"Mid-Missourians are incredibly generous, compassionate people, and when they see a need, and see they can do something about it, people just step forward," she said.
In addition to the rising national demand for food assistance, local pantries are seeing the usual holiday surge in demand, according to both Eichler and Logan Park, social services specialist with the Volunteer Action Center.
Park said local pantries also saw a drop in supply during the Joplin tornado disaster, as supplies from the Food Bank were mostly directed to the survivors. The end of the month also means more people will visit pantries, he said, as most federal assistance checks are sent out at the beginning of the month and start to run out by the end.