CLEVELAND — For the first time all year, the nation’s gross domestic product increased in the third quarter of 2022, briefly easing fears of a recession, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. However, if you were to ask the region’s two largest food banks, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank, the demand for food assistance remains higher than it has ever been.
The accelerated growth in GDP, which is a sum of all the goods and services produced from July through September, marks the first period of economic growth so far this year. The two previous quarters of 2022 showed contractions in the economy, meeting the commonly accepted definition of a recession. Despite aggressive measures taken by the Federal Reserve, it remains abundantly clear that inflation continues to eat away at household budgets across the country.
On Thursday afternoon, a steady stream of hundreds of cars snaked around Cleveland’s Muni lot for the weekly drive-thru distribution held by the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. An outgrowth of the early days of the pandemic, the weekly distributions continue to draw thousands of residents in need of food assistance. On average, the distribution will provide food to more than 2,000 households every week.
“We haven’t stopped yet. We have been doing this since March 2020. Whoever thought that we would be there as long as we have been?” said Karen Pozna, a spokesperson for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. “We continue to be there because the need is still there. We served nearly 350,000 people in the last fiscal year and that was an increase over the year prior.”
As she does most weeks, resident Donna Halbakken and her trusty co-navigator, a blind, deaf dog named Dee-Dee, went through the food bank’s muni lot distribution to get the weekly rations for four people.
The food isn’t for her though. Instead, she will take the food to various neighborhoods and distribute it to those that are unable to attend the distribution event.
“No matter what neighborhood, some kids need food,” Halbakken said. “I want to make sure they have something. Every neighborhood needs it. You would be surprised by some of the neighborhoods, seriously.”
As is often said, a majority of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck and at no time has that been more true than this year. As of September, 63% of Americans were living paycheck-to-paycheck, according to a recent report from the LendingClub — near the 64% historic high hit in March.
The report included a sobering conclusion: the wages and savings of most Americans can’t keep up with inflation. Area food banks have been strained by inflation as well. All the while, demand has been increasing, said Dan Flowers, the CEO of the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank.
“We have not seen a month like we had in the month of September in the last four years. Even at the height of the pandemic in 2020, we didn’t have as many people come through and ask for food that we saw in September,” Flowers said. “It is an urgent situation at our food banks in this country, at our food bank, at every food bank that I’ve talked to.”
Making matters even more urgent are continued supply chain woes and a dwindling food surplus nationwide.
Flowers said food banks like his acquire food through three main channels: the USDA’s food program, donations from manufacturers as well as conventional food purchases made by the food bank itself. However, two of those channels have been reduced to a trickle, Flowers said.
“The national donations are way, way down. Our government food is over 30% down. The USDA is having a hard time finding food to fulfill orders. Our main lifeline has been food purchases,” Flowers said. “These shortages are becoming very problematic. Much of the emergency food system that we have in this country is contingent upon the availability of surpluses. We’ve never not had a surplus food market in my 25 years.”
Flowers said this has forced the food bank to have to purchase more food just to keep up with the overwhelming demand. In the process, however, the food bank’s purchasing power has been partially eaten away by inflation, placing an even greater emphasis on fundraising.
“I couldn’t ring the bell loud enough, it’s a serious situation,” Flower said.
Click here for more information on how to donate to the Akron Canton Regional Food Bank and click here to donate to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.