Goodman Community Center | Food insecurity is at an all-time high —…

Food insecurity is at an all-time high — and getting higher

Goodman’s food pantry is not immune — it’s busier than ever. This trend also challenges other area food pantries’ ability to keep shelves stocked.

April 30, 2024 |
Volunteers Bobbie Ruder (left) and Nick Hein stock shelves in Goodman Community Center’s Fritz Food Pantry. The pantry is one of many seeing usage skyrocket.

By Amie Hoag, Eastside News

On a rainy Tuesday morning, the Goodman Community Center food pantry was as busy as ever. A few customers lined up outside despite the rain, and by the time the doors opened at 9 a.m., there were already more than 50 numbers handed out.

On this particular Tuesday, the pantry served more than 100 households, a number that would have been shockingly high only four years ago. Today, it’s the average.

“We’re seeing record need across the community,” Francesca Frisque, GCC food pantry assistant director, said. “Each time we think we’ve hit a plateau, we see a new record.”

This steady increase in need isn’t unique to Goodman’s community. The largest food pantries in Dane County — Badger Prairie Needs Network, The River Food Pantry, St. Vincent de Paul, Sun Prairie Food Pantry, WayForward Resources, as well as Goodman — recently reported an increase in visits of 112% from December 2022 to the same month last year.

At Goodman, the number of visits was up 123% from 2021 to 2023. Number of people served was up 139% in the same time period. This equates to a little more than 17,000 people served in 2021 versus more than 41,000 served in 2023. If the trend continues, the Goodman pantry will serve more than 60,000 people this year.

The total visits to Goodman’s Fritz Food Pantry since 2021, with 2024 being an estimate based on previous trends.

“It’s daunting to think about, from a logistical perspective. And heartbreaking from a human perspective,” Frisque said.

Looking around the pantry waiting area, customers range in age from young families to retirees, and in speaking with some waiting, plenty are employed and use the pantry to supplement their income. The names of customers have been changed throughout the article to protect their privacy.

Monica works three jobs: one full time and two part time. Even with three jobs, she often can’t afford to pay bills and buy food.

“Rent is so expensive now,” she said. “Any place you’re renting from requires you to make three times your monthly rent. And when you start making that kind of money, you don’t qualify for assistance like food shares anymore. But really, $18 per hour doesn’t go too far when everything is so expensive.”

Though inflation has slowed, the consumer price index, which measures the change in market prices over time, remains 20% higher than it was pre-pandemic. For people across Dane County, that means prioritizing what bills get paid and what essentials they may have to do without.

In Monica’s case, she visited the pantry that Tuesday because rent was due the day before and she was out of cash.

“When I have enough cash, I go to the grocery store. When I don’t, I visit a pantry,” she said.

Monica’s story is one Frisque has heard again and again, especially over the last year.

“I think there’s a picture people have in mind when they think of food pantry customers,” she said. “But I’ve talked with people who share that their family and friends have no idea they need to use our pantry. No one is immune to the rising cost of living.”

So how did we get here? In spring 2023, many pandemic-era assistance programs ended, including the child care tax credit and the additional funds in food shares. At the same time, inflation surged, along with it the cost of everyday essentials like food and — especially in Madison — housing.

For people like Linda, it became almost impossible to keep up. Linda is retired, living on $1,000 per month from Social Security.

Linda shared that before she retired, she had a job that paid her well enough to support herself. However, her Social Security benefits haven’t been able to keep up with inflation. She visits the pantry weekly so she can use her income for other necessities.

“I’m lucky. I share a house with my son. If I was on my own, I’d never be able to afford rent,” she said.

“We’re seeing record need across the community. Each time we think we’ve hit a plateau, we see a new record.”

Many of the visitors to the pantry are retirees on a fixed income. For them, the ever-increasing price in consumer goods means having to make some tough choices.

Linda is thankful for the Goodman pantry.

“It’s really a beautiful place to shop,” she said. “It’s like going to a store. The food is really wonderful, and the produce is always fresh. And I appreciate that they have toiletries sometimes too.”

It’s a challenge to keep those shelves stocked. Even before Tuesday’s pantry opened, several of the shelves were totally bare.

“My baking section only has corn flour right now,” Frisque said. “And toiletries are always in demand and hard to keep stocked.”

The Goodman pantry operates on a limited budget and relies on partnerships like Second Harvest Food Bank and Community Action Coalition, as well as donations from the community of money and goods.

For many pantries in our community, including Goodman’s, Second Harvest Food Bank is a main source of stock. Frisque shared that Second Harvest is facing its own limits and challenges.

“Second Harvest is feeling the pinch too,” she explained. “They’re limited in their capacity for storage, particularly fridge and freezer storage. And when they receive free items, they get snatched up quickly.”

Just as consumers are seeing higher prices at the grocery store, local food pantries are seeing similar unpredictable fluctuation when purchasing products. This makes it hard to plan for how much it will actually cost to stock the shelves.

“When buying in bulk, you really feel the price differences,” Frisque said. “A 10-cent increase may not seem like a lot, but when you’re buying thousands of units of an item, it adds up quickly.”

Pantry leaders across the community have always been creative in how they ensure people who need food get it, and with these added challenges, they’ve had to get extra creative. In addition to working closely together to share resources and advocate together, pantries offset costs by relying heavily on volunteers. At the Goodman food pantry, volunteers work 66 shifts each week, adding up to about 145 hours of work. This goes a long way for the team of one full-time staff (Frisque) and two part-time staff.

One of those part-time staff members spends 100% of her time on something Goodman calls “retail rescue.” Four days a week, she visits a number of businesses throughout the community to collect products the stores won’t sell, but that still have life in them. Products including produce, bakery treats, prepared foods and more make their way onto Goodman’s pantry shelves and into the homes of customers. Frisque did the math and determined about 26% of the food on pantry shelves comes from these retail pickups.

Another main source of food is community donations.

“We have an incredible base of donors who give regularly,” Frisque said. “Even still, we’re not seeing as many donations come in. Without help from the community, we wouldn’t be able to keep our shelves stocked.”

In an effort to encourage a higher volume of and more regular food and hygiene product donations from the community, Goodman is rolling out a new program called Friends of the Food Pantry. This group will be made up of volunteers acting as collection points for their neighborhoods or friend groups while also helping get the word out about the need in the community.

Food insecurity is a communal problem, one that can be solved together. Frisque sees the power food has in building community every day.

“I watch our customers get to know each other as they wait,” she said. “Retirees talking with young families. Regular customers taking first-time visitors under their wing. Any one of us could need a food pantry at some point in our lives. By supporting the pantry now, we ensure it’ll be around for years to come and for whoever needs it.”

Those interested in donating nonperishable food or hygiene products can see the most-needed list here.

For more information about becoming involved with Friends of the Food Pantry contact:

Susan Ramspacher

Volunteer Manager
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