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Demand at Dane County food pantries up 112% over last two years
Food Pantry
February 29, 2024

Demand at Dane County food pantries up 112% over last two years

Demand at Dane County food pantries up 112% over last two years

Without food pantries, thousands of people in our community wouldn’t have access to enough food to meet their basic needs. 

The demand across six of Dane County’s largest food pantries has reached record highs, more than doubling over the last two years, while charitable giving has plummeted nationwide during that same time period. The 112% increase represents the average increase in the number of household visits across the six pantries between December 2021 and December 2023. 

Up to this point, community support has been a critical part of how pantries have met the need, local pantry leaders said. 

“We have never turned anyone away, but we have had to put some limits on the amount of food people can take,” said Ellen Carlson, executive director for WayForward Resources in Middleton. “We worry about how we and other local food pantries can continue to ensure that everyone in our community has access to nutritious food.”

The pressure on pantries to meet the need escalated in Spring 2023 as pandemic-era supports phased out, including the expanded child tax credit, universal free school lunches, and increased federal food and rental assistance. 

“In the past four years, we’ve felt the impact of a pandemic, inflation, high housing costs and increased migration,” said Tracy Burton, Badger Prairie Needs Network Food Pantry Director. “All of these combined have resulted in over five times the number of visits to our pantry from pre-pandemic levels.”

Rhonda Adams, executive director of The River Food Pantry, said the number of households in need of the pantry’s services began growing steadily over the past few years and then surged when most pandemic relief programs phased out last spring, resulting in over 276,000 visits by households in need of groceries and meals in 2023 alone. “Food insecurity is a communal issue, even if we may not always recognize when it is affecting our friends and neighbors, and support from the broader community will continue to be essential to successfully addressing it,” Adams said.

While inflation has slowed down, prices for basic goods and housing have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The consumer price index, the most widely-followed measure of inflation, remains about 20% higher than it was before the pandemic. In addition, the steep increase in housing costs in Dane County means many households in our community have to focus even more of their income on rent. 

“Many of our customers are people who are employed full-time and finding it necessary to choose between paying bills and buying food,” said Francesca Frisque, Goodman Community Center food pantry assistant director, who said growth there has been consistent and “sometimes staggering.”

“We’re thankful for so many generous partners throughout the community, and we have an incredible base of donors who give regularly. Even still, we’re not seeing as many donations come in, and we’re having a hard time keeping our shelves stocked,” Frisque said. “Without help from the community, we wouldn’t be able to meet the need of our Madison neighbors.”

Food pantries help families stretch their budgets so they don’t have to go without basic necessities and can continue to cover costs such as filling their gas tank to get to work and paying for prescriptions.

“We continue to respond to escalating pantry need with a variety of food options so people and families don’t have to choose between paying rent and buying groceries,” said Chris Kane, senior director of client services at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul — Madison. 

Here are some of their stories:

  • Jeremy, Marcella (names changed) and their three young kids recently moved to Dane County. Even though both Jeremy and Marcella work full time, it’s still difficult to make rent each month, pay for utilities and buy food and diapers for the family. Thanks to the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, they can get essentials like milk, butter, eggs and bread to feed their kids. It’s things that help them get by each month while allowing them to expedite their savings so they can thrive long term.
  • Ryan and Lexy (names changed) began visiting the WayForward Resources food pantry after he was laid off from a marketing firm where he had a promising career path. Lexy is in treatment for cancer and has significant medical bills. The couple is using all of their savings to maintain the health insurance coverage from Ryan’s former employer while he looks for another job. The pantry is a critical piece of their stability, allowing them to stay in their apartment.
  • Bill (name changed) visits the Goodman Community Center food pantry every week, and the variety of fresh foods have made a positive impact on his diet. “I use the pantry every week, and it allows me to eat more healthy foods than I could otherwise afford. I’m very grateful for it.” Goodman pantry staff report that many customers share a similar sentiment, with some even bringing photos each week of meals they’ve prepared with food from the pantry.
  • Mary (name changed) describes her experience at Badger Prairie Needs Network. “I’m a single mom just a hair above qualifying for food help. This pantry is a blessing every time. I have a young child with special needs. The items we get are incredible for him. We get so excited each time we go knowing that he will get food we couldn’t afford.”
  • “The pantry has helped me be able to stay in my home by providing food when my budget is stretched terribly thin,” a client from The River Food Pantry said. Others who visit The River shared that being able to get food from the pantry meant they did not have to choose between eating and paying other bills. “My child and I would not be eating much without The River groceries. This is our key to getting by,” another client said.
  • Annie (name changed) found the Sun Prairie Food Pantry during the early days of the pandemic. At the time her son was a baby, and receiving diapers and wipes from the pantry in addition to food was a huge help. When the Child Tax Credit payments ended in 2022, Annie found herself needing to use the pantry again. “We [my husband and I] both work but some months we just can’t make it.” They recently found out they’re expecting again, and they’re relieved to know they can count on the Sun Prairie Food Pantry as their family grows.

“We won’t turn anyone away, and we’re spending more money each month to make sure our shelves are stocked,” said Catie Badsing, manager of food security programs at the Sun Prairie Food Pantry at Sunshine Place. As the gap between wages and cost of living continues to widen, Badsing said pantries will keep seeing more new families who need their services. More than 8% of employed adults in Wisconsin live in food insecure households, according to a recent Census Pulse Household Survey

“Our shifts outside of regular working hours are our busiest, which means most of our customers are working, sometimes multiple jobs,” Badsing said.

There is a misconception that food pantries operate mainly with state or federal support, but only a small amount of food comes in through the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program. Instead pantries must stock their shelves by relying on a complex web of systems and collaborations.That includes strategic partnerships like those with Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, food rescues from local grocery and convenience stores, as well as monetary and food donations from businesses, foundations, churches, and individuals.

“Unfortunately, many grants have stayed at the same levels, pandemic era funding is gone, our guests’ SNAP benefits have been reduced, and our food banks have been struggling to keep up with this growth,” said Burton from Badger Prairie Needs Network. “We’ve been grateful to be in a community that has always risen to the need — but with this enormous growth, we will need to find new sources of food and/or money or will have to restrict access to the pantry.”

While generous food drives at the end of 2023 had a major impact for people in our community, hunger doesn’t end with the holiday season. Donations of money, food and your volunteer time can all make an immediate difference in the lives of so many of our neighbors who need our support now more than ever.