BAR HARBOR — With prices at the pump and grocery stores continuing to surge, many struggling families are turning to the Bar Harbor Food Pantry to backstop their budget. But as demand increases, donation levels have flatlined, leaving the pantry wondering how it will meet those rising needs.
For the entire year of 2021, the Bar Harbor Food Pantry saw 352 unique households come through its doors. This year, that number has already jumped to 376. Even though 2022 is only halfway through, there have been an additional 24 households, on average, visiting the pantry.
Tom Reeve, executive director of BHFP, explained that those in need of assistance basically doubled during the first year of COVID-19, but donations also doubled during 2020. He pointed to instances of extreme generosity where people signed over their entire stimulus checks. Those contributions allowed the pantry to keep up with demand. Now they’re not seeing the same influx of donations they saw during the early part of the pandemic.
“I think people aren’t aware that there’s still as much, if not more, of a need now,” Reeve said.
Food-at-home price indexes have increased 11.9 percent since last year, the largest 12-month increase in over 40 years, according to the Labor Department’s U.S. Consumer Price Index report. Although all six major grocery store food group prices indexes have increased, meat, poultry, fish and eggs increased the most, rising 14.2 percent, with the egg index price increasing 32.2 percent.
Because the pantry pays for the majority of its food and cannot rely on consistent donations, expenses across the board have squeezed its finances as well. Although most bulk goods are purchased at reduced cost through the Good Shepherd Food Bank, Reeve said weekly food bills are now hovering around $3,000 – about double what they had been.
“We’re also seeing that people are taking more than they used to and that’s a sign of not having enough money for purchases,” said Reeve. “We’ve also seen some people who can’t come in because of [high] gas prices.”
Maine is still experiencing record-high gas prices that are above the national average. According to AAA, Maine’s average gas price was $5 as of Tuesday compared to the national average of $4.88.
High gas prices have limited the amount of deliveries Reeve is able to make. He works alongside one other staff member and a dedicated but small number of volunteers. The pantry’s budget limitations, coupled with staffing shortages, mean there aren’t enough resources to make those long hauls around the island.
“We’re hard pressed for volunteers,” Reeve said. “We mostly concentrate on deliveries for people who physically can’t get here.”
Sara Graves, the pantry manager at BHFP, said for those that do come into the pantry to shop, the amount of new faces she’s seen recently is about half of the overall visitation.
“I feel like it’s food prices and gas and obviously cost of living. I mean, it’s everything – you put it all in the pile.” Graves said, when asked why more people are coming in. “Their dollar just isn’t going as far. Even myself, I’ve found that it’s hard.”
While Reeves looks for ways to save on costs, he’s hoping donations will eventually kick back up. Items that are usually needed in the pantry include produce, cleaning items, cooking oils, jellies and jams, feminine products and pet food. But staple foods are always needed as well.
Donations can be dropped off at the pantry located on 36 Mt. Desert St., the Bar Harbor Hannaford bin or the YWCA drop box.
For more information, including how to volunteer, go to www.barharborfoodpantry.org.