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Local food pantries try to meet increased demand as food prices rise

Fresh produce at the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry
Erin Gottsacker
Fresh produce at the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry

The cost of this year’s Thanksgiving feast is nearly 20 percent higher than last year’s average, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

But that’s not what UW economist Andrew Stevens is thinking about.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about all the other meals people are eating,” he says. “In particular, for low-income households, this isn’t a holiday issue. This is a three-times-a-day issue. So, when I see inflation, I’m really thinking about how the social safety net programs are adapting to those increased prices.”

In the Northwoods, that social safety net includes food pantries. Just like individuals, they’re also struggling with rising food prices.

The Consumer Price Index shows food prices in the Midwest rose 13 percent in the last year, the sharpest increase since 1979.

As those prices go up, food pantries see more demand.

The Rhinelander Area Food Pantry, for example, is set to serve about 720 households this year. Last year it served just under 600 households.

Additionally, people who use the pantry visit more often.

“Pantry usage is a really good indicator of the economic impacts that our community is feeling,” says Courtney Smith, the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry’s associate executive director. “So, it’s a lot easier to come and get help for food than it is to get help for car repair or rent assistance or even utility assistance.”

But as food pantries like the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry serve more people, the high cost of groceries means their dollars don’t stretch as far.

“We are not immune to the increase of food costs,” Smith says. “In fact, we are seeing that items that used to be free are no longer free. And many of those items are vital, really important, key grocery items. That’s meat, that’s eggs, that may be dairy products as well, and even some of those canned good staples.”

Take Thanksgiving turkeys as an example.

In the past, the food pantry has been able to provide each household with a bird, but this year, the budget didn’t allow for that. The pantry still supplied some turkeys, but they also offered $10 gift cards to Aldi as an alternative.

Those have already been distributed, but the pantry’s work is far from finished for the holidays.

It’s now turning its focus to Christmas hams.

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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