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How to Support Local Food Pantries as Costs Rise

Inflation is a topic that has been in and out of the news for as long as I can remember. The cost of everything has always been on the rise but not at the rate we’re currently experiencing. Food, household products, and fuel costs are skyrocketing faster than wages, which is having a larger impact than usual on our community. This rate of inflation disproportionately impacts those who are living paycheck-to-paycheck, are underserved, or have fallen on hard times. To learn more about how our community is affected, I sat down with Padraig Gallagher, the Executive Director of Stepping Stones of Dunn County, to talk about how inflation is impacting their organization, the needs they are seeing, and what we can do as a community to support each other.

Stepping Stones is a local non-profit organization focused on three main areas of need: food, shelter, and community connections. They are best known for their food pantry and pop-up pantries around the county that anyone is welcome to utilize. Lesser-known services they provide include supporting community members who are experiencing isolation, especially low-income seniors and folks with disabilities. These range from installing safety equipment to helping with yard work. They also have Dunn County’s only general population emergency shelter and provided 9,000 shelter nights in 2021, the equivalent of one in five Dunn County residents spending one night at the shelter. That is 9,000 times someone did not have access to a safe place to sleep, one of our most basic human needs.

To understand how inflation is affecting the food pantry specifically, I wanted to learn more about how they get the food they provide and what can impact that. The two largest contributors are direct purchases from Feed My People Food Bank and The Hunger Federation, as well as donations from the Food Rescue Program. This program allows local grocers to donate food that may be past its sell-by date but is still perfectly good to eat. For example, our Menomonie location donates anywhere from 1,500-3,000 pounds of food each month through Food Rescue. Not only does that help Stepping Stones, but it creates much less food waste for grocers, a win-win in my eyes. The other ways they acquire food include direct donations from the community and direct purchases from local farmers and producers. In 2021, they tripled their produce offerings over 2020 by partnering with local farms to buy fresh fruits and veggies.

As food costs rise, so do the needs in the community because people are able to purchase less and less with their food dollars, resulting in more people stopping at the pantry to supplement their grocery trips. When customers purchase less, grocers buy less for the shelves and in turn have less to donate through Food Rescue. All of these factors are creating food scarcity for those who need it most, especially for high-quality proteins such as meat. Padraig mentioned that meats are some of the most expensive products and hardest to procure from food banks right now. 

So, how can we all help our fellow community members thrive? By remembering Padraig’s three Ws—Words, Work, Wallet. 

• USE YOUR WORDS TO BE AN ADVOCATE FOR FOOD PANTRIES. You can help them out by talking about their great services or sharing their posts on social media. 

• VOLUNTEER YOUR TIME. There are fewer volunteers now than before the pandemic, and Stepping Stones relies on help to keep their shelter open and the pantry running smoothly. To learn more, contact their Community Connections Program Coordinator at 715-235-2920, Ext. 3 or communityconnect@steppingstonesdc.org.

• OPEN YOUR WALLET. Shelf-stable food donations can be brought directly to Stepping Stones or dropped off in the entryway at our Menomonie store. Funds can also be donated online, delivered in-person, or sent via a mailed check. Every dollar helps!

As I wrapped up my interview with Padraig, I asked him what he wishes people knew about Stepping Stones, and he said, “Unfortunately, some of the stereotypes about people who are in need still persist. I would welcome anybody to come and volunteer. Spend some time with the folks who are struggling to really understand how beautiful they are and how good it is for the community to take care of their own.” I challenge each of you to dig deeper and consider the ways in which you can support your neighbors in need; you never when you might end up in their shoes.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of our bi-monthly newsletter, The Morsel. If you’d like to read more stories like this one and stay up to date on the latest co-op news and events, pick up a print copy in-store on your next grocery run or find more news on our website here.

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