HATFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – Across western Massachusetts, food pantries and meal sites are reporting greater numbers of residents visiting their sites for food assistance.

Food insecurity has risen from the sustained inflation of food and gasoline. The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts says the trend is going in the opposite direction after a gradual decline to pre-pandemic levels.

“In the first two months of 2022, food insecurity had returned to pre-pandemic levels thanks to astounding community and government response to the pandemic,” said Andrew Morehouse, The Food Bank’s executive director.

Courtesy of The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Inc.

In February, a total of 81,623 individuals had continued to seek food assistance. That number is down from its peak of 124,592 individuals in November 2020. “We can’t be satisfied with the old normal. We must do more to solve food insecurity once and for all. And, with food insecurity on the rise again, The Food Bank will continue to be there for our neighbors in need of food assistance,” said Morehouse.

For The Food Bank and three other regional food banks that supply food to local food pantries and meal sites in the Commonwealth, food supplies are the moving target. The state of the economy and impact on food insecurity dictates the amount of supplies. “When the economy goes south, supplies of food increase from state and federal governments,” said Shirley Del Rio, Director of Food Distribution. “In 2021, the federal Community Food Assistance Program (CFAP) and unprecedented private grants to purchase food were the direct response to the pandemic.”

The Food Bank provides two million fewer meals despite a declining number of individuals needing food assistance in the last nine months. A twenty percent decline came from the termination of CFAP fresh vegetable food boxes from local farmers. Another part of the decline came from the food the Food Bank purchased from restricted grants due to the closure of the Massachusetts COVID-19 Relief Fund.

As food insecurity goes up again, The Food Bank is gaining food purchases from the community. With local growing season near, The Food Bank can expect supplies of local vegetables to rise. Each year, approximately a million pounds of fresh vegetables is purchased by dozens of local farmers. The support from the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEFAP) helps to make these purchases possible.

More than half of the entire inventory is made up of MEFAP and federal funds from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. While the rest will come from local supermarkets, farmers, and other sources.

A challenge that also has been present is the insufficient storage space at the Food Bank facility in Hatfield. Del Rio added, “We’ve had to turn away the equivalent of more than one million meals because we didn’t have a place to store it.”

The Food Bank had broke ground on a new upcoming food distribution center and headquarters in Chicopee that is expected to be twice the size of the old location. The Food Bank plans to sell their current building as they transfer over into the new distribution center next summer.

The Food Bank remains facing rising operating, transportation, and food costs until then. “We’ve been paying 24% more for fresh vegetables from local and national suppliers,” Del Rio explained. “We expect increases of 20% moving forward for shelf stable dry goods. Freight charges alone are up 42%.”