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The number of people seeking food pantries services increases as pandemic-era support decreases for both households and pantries

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

The number of people shopping at the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry has gone through a bit of a rollercoaster over the last few years.

In 2018, 934 households used its services. That dropped to just under 600 in 2021. Then went back up to 744 last year.

Associate Executive Director Courtney Smith believes they’ll be back up to pre-pandemic numbers or at least close to this year if the number of people coming in since January is any indication.

“We’re seeing increased new customers or returning customers to the pantry. We have folks that have come back, maybe they haven’t even used the pantry in three or four years. We average probably within a month anywhere between 15-20 new registrations,” said Smith.

Smith says it’s a combination of programs ending, not just SNAP, which less than half their customers use.

They’ve seen more households with children since the child tax credits have lessened.

It’s not just that more people are using their services, but they’re needing them more frequently.

Smith said the number of visits went from around 3,500 in 2021 to more than 5,700 in 2022.

“I think that’s the best indicator of what’s happening in our community. Again, people are free to use the pantry to supplement their households as they need. Our goal has always been to provide. We know for many of our customers, we’re their primary supplier of food,” she said.

On top of programs ending or reducing benefits for people, the food pantry also isn’t getting the kind of support it did from the government that it was two years ago.

Grant funding was made available to help the pantry make infrastructure improvements.

But Smith says it’s the quantity and quality of food they were able to get for free or reduced pricing that has been the most noticeable difference.

“As a TEFAP pantry, we receive a free delivery of food. We’ll get a couple of pallets and it can be staples such as canned goods, frozen meat, peanut butter, things like that. During COVID, we were getting double, if not triple the amount of food each month,” said Smith.

TEFAP is The Emergency Food Assistance Program.

Even with the challenges ahead, Smith is confident the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry will be able to provide for all its community members that need its services.

And she knows there are a lot more people they could be helping.

“We kind of have to go back a couple of years to look at, ‘how did we use to do this?’ and ‘How are we going to do this moving forward?’ Our food budget has been increased about 40% this year. That may be conservative monitoring these first couple of months buying food,” said Smith.

Smith says the pantry can always use more volunteers and monetary and food donations.

It’s also in the middle of itsSpring Challenge. Donations are being matched during this time.

You can learn more about how to support their work on the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry’s website.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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