Durham’s food pantries face challenges as demand surges amid rising costs

Eddie Taylor stands before shelves of donated food at Allegiance's Food Bank, where he is a client. The noticeably empty shelves behind him show the pressing need for donations to sustain the food bank through the week. (Photo by Danelis Olivera-Herrera.)

Friday, April 19, 2024

By Danelis Olivera-Herrera

As the food bank deliveryman made his way inside the Iglesia Emanuel food pantry, carrying a dozen boxes, he stopped as he saw Margaret Rubiera, the volunteer manager. He told her there is less than usual, and he isn’t sure why.

“It’s definitely less, but we’re grateful,” Rubiera said.

Just a short drive from the church is Durham Technical Community College, which has a food pantry in Philips Hall.

“Do you have any fresh fruits?” asked a student passing by the pantry’s entrance.

“We should have some tomorrow,” replied Jacob Deuterman, coordinator of campus harvest food student engagement and resources.

Nonprofit food pantries are currently grappling with the challenge of meeting high demand for food amid continued inflation, which has been especially steep for food.

To put it into perspective, Iglesia Emanuel serves roughly 600 families every week, which, according to Rubiera, translates to 3,000 people benefiting from the food pantry every day.

“There have been weeks when we’ve had to turn people away again when we’ve run out of food. The need for good quality food is huge; there are so many more insecure people in our community than anyone realized before the pandemic,” Rubiera said.

Food and rent have steadily become more costly, hitting a 40-year high in mid-2022. While prices are not increasing as fast as they did then, they are still increasing. This has left many in the Durham community, much like the rest of the United States, in a vicious cycle of juggling their income to make ends meet.

“The working families who come tell us that because rent has gone up, and groceries have gone up, and other expenses, they just can’t afford good food, they have to pay their rent, otherwise they end up homeless,” Rubiera said.

Durham Technical Community College food pantry has also seen a rise in demand as it serves more and more students, faculty and staff.

“We stay pretty well stocked, but at the same time, you know, we’re also serving probably about 36% more students than we served in previous years, we’ve definitely had to procure more food to serve the increase in demand,” Deuterman said.

The Alliance of AIDS Services Carolina (AAS-C) provides free tests for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, but its food pantry is the biggest, most utilized part of its support services program.

“We distributed 108,821 pounds of food last year,” said Liz Donkersloot, associate director of administration and development at AAS-C. “This pantry is open to anyone once a month. The individuals with HIV are able to utilize it twice a month.”

During COVID, AAS-C received plenty of donations, especially around the holidays such as Christmas. Churches would call, telling those who run the pantry they had a surplus of food they did not want to go to waste. Two or so years later, it’s a different scenario.

“Towards the end of the week, specifically Thursday, we’re running out of food, so that is our biggest problem: trying to keep enough food for everyone to last throughout the week, because our pantry is open Tuesday through Friday,” said DeVaughn Gentry, associate director of care and support.

AAS-C moved to a larger location to have more space for food shelves and a few large refrigerators, aiming to offer more for the community. However, according to Volunteer Pantry Manager Marcia Rogers, the shelves are only becoming barer as the week comes to an end, and the meats in the freezers are often rationed to provide at least one item to each individual to last them the month.

“People need food, and you don’t want to turn anybody down for food,” Rogers said.

The need for meat is also felt in Hannah’s Community Kitchen at Greater Orange Grove Church in Durham.

“Of course, meats,” said Beatrice King, lead shopper and distributor. “Yeah, that’s the hardest food to get is meat. People give plenty of canned goods, but meat is so expensive and with food being so high it’s really hard.”

Hannah’s Kitchen saw a surge in demand during the pandemic that has since tapered off, but is still higher than before 2020, according to King and Director Theresia McGee. The organization also received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to buy a shed for food storage but has not yet secured a permit to install it on a parcel of land.

PORCH-Durham, another nonprofit that works to help those with food insecurity, takes food to locations where families are already receiving other services rather than providing a pantry space people visit to pick up food.

“We do that on purpose, actually, because I’m not a trusted person for the families that are receiving our food. And that could be a barrier. Me as this white woman that you don’t know, maybe you don’t even speak the same language as me,” PORCH-Durham Executive Director Amy Jones said.

PORCH gets its name because it collects food items from donors’ porches, or front door. To distribute that food, PORCH collaborates with schools, churches and other places people in the community frequent. That’s how PORCH learns how many families are in need of food, then PORCH delivers packages of food to those schools and churches for those families.

A benefit of working this way is that PORCH can request from its donors foods that meet the families’ cultural and dietary needs.

One of PORCH’s current, most food-demanding partners used to receive food from another organization.

“What they were finding about a year ago was that their numbers were slowly, slowly trickling up and the food bank couldn’t meet the demand,” Jones said. “And in fact, the food they were receiving from the food bank was going down and down.”

Durham Cares implements programs aimed to educate the people of Durham to care for themselves and their neighbors in holistic ways. It does this with its own programming that focus on everything from city history and spiritual reflection to education with workshops and training. It also collaborates with other organizations in these efforts.

One of those collaborations is with Urban Community Agronomics, a nonprofit agricultural organization that fosters better eating habits and provides food quality education, according to Durham Cares Executive Director Reynolds Chapman.

An example of this is taking young people to a farm to teach them about the origins of the food they eat. The group also provides food for some people in the community.

“I think that kind of holistic way of addressing it are the good approaches,” Chapman said. “But I mean, food insecurity is still a major issue in Durham.”

Through these programs Durham Cares has identified the need for food and housing in the Durham community.

“And I think the challenge is, as we see more and more people become homeless, we see more and more people just struggle to take care of basic needs because they’re paying so much for housing, or they have inadequate housing,” Chapman said.

Despite the efforts by these nonprofits, demand for food continues to rise, reflecting broader systemic and economic issues within the Durham community. This ongoing challenge underscores the importance of their work.

“That’s our reason for continuing, is to ensure better health outcomes, not just if they have food on the table, but better health outcomes,” Rubiera said.