Rising cost of groceries sends more people to local food pantries

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Kathleen Aden arranges canned goods on shelves in food pantry of Most Blessed Trinity Parish in Waukegan on Dec. 18, 2021. Food pantries have seen an increase in clients since the rise of inflation. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

As the price of food at the grocery store rises, so does the number of people seeking help from area food pantries.

Sharon Holmes, operations director for Catholic Charities’ 10 food pantries in Cook and Lake counties, said she has seen an increase in the number of people needing help since most COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted, up to 40 percent more people than before the pandemic started.

At Most Blessed Trinity Parish in Waukegan, which operates its own food pantry and soup kitchen, the number of people served at the soup kitchen also is up 40 percent from this time a year ago, and the number of people in families served by the food pantry is up 27 percent.

And on Aug. 24, the food pantry at St. James Parish, 2907 S. Wabash Ave., coordinator Cathy Moore and her staff and volunteers served almost 100 people.

“That’s on a Wednesday,” Moore said. “That’s usually our light day. We get 100 people usually on Tuesday and Thursday, but Wednesday is usually more like 60 or 65 people.”

Coordinators said the increase in need has several reasons, including the end of special benefits during the pandemic and people who have not yet gotten back on their feet after losing jobs, but they hear from many clients how they just cannot buy as much at the grocery store as they used to.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now predicting that overall food costs will rise between 8.5 and 9.5 percent this year, with price increases on food prepared at home — like the food bought in grocery stores — topping 10 percent and outstripping the increases of food prepared elsewhere. Those increases are not even across the board, with dairy, meat and egg prices rising faster; egg prices increased 38 percent between July 2021 and July 2022, according to the agency.

One client at the St. James Food Pantry, a 65-year-old single woman, said she owns her home and she works as a secretary for a non-profit organization, but her mortgage takes more than half her take-home pay, and after utilities and transportation costs, she has about $60 or $65 a week to spend on groceries and other necessities.

“That doesn’t allow me to buy meat or anything like that very often,” said the woman, who did not give her name. “I buy staples like potatoes and rice, but in the last six weeks or so, every time I go to the store, the price is higher.”

As a single, working adult, she doesn’t receive any government food aid, so she has been coping by restricting visits to the store to once a week and only buying what is on sale, using the food pantry to fill in the gaps.

“I tell myself that it’s a good way to lose weight,” the woman said, laughing. “But truthfully, I’m blessed that the pantry is here. I do what I can. I’m just juggling.”

The woman said she started using the food pantry in 2020, during the pandemic, when she was not always able to work.

Moore said St. James actually saw fewer clients during that time, as there was more help available in other places. Pop-up pantries opened, many organizations did food giveaways and the state of Illinois expanded its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Now that those programs are gone and inflation is biting into people’s food budgets, the number of clients has surpassed what it was before the pandemic, Moore said. It also affects people who receive SNAP benefits, which give a set amount of money, not a set amount of food.

The pantry’s busiest time is the week before the last week of the month, since many electronically transferred benefits are available a few days before the first of each month.

“We can tell when the benefits run out,” she said.

The pantry is able to get food at no cost from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, but “it’s not enough to feed everyone right now,” said Moore, who also works with local grocery stores and encourages organizations like schools to hold food drives targeted at what local pantries need.

“Like we have a lot of seniors, and a lot of Asian seniors,” said Moore. “That population prefers oatmeal, rice and fresh produce. I don’t have enough to give people both rice and oatmeal, so they have to choose. I don’t have enough for them to get every fresh produce item.”

The pantry serves people in ZIP codes that cover areas in South Loop, Chinatown and Bronzeville.

The shortages affect the clients and they affect the morale of volunteers, Moore said.

“I know my volunteers, and they are passionate about the idea that the clients are fed and that they have a great shopping experience,” she said. “I know it’s going to make them uncomfortable that we can’t give what we usually give.”

Holmes said the Catholic Charities pantries are concentrating on providing fresh meat, dairy and produce to their clients, since those cost so much, and she works with Chicago-area vendors to get those items donated or at least at wholesale cost.

Because Catholic Charities is trying to keep its own costs down, the food pantries have only one truck and one driver to pick up and deliver food. Sometimes Holmes pitches in, driving food to pantries to fill in the gaps.

Marvin Sabido, operations director at Most Blessed Trinity, said his parish now has to budget more not just for food but for containers and paper goods to serve it.

Clamshell food containers used by the soup kitchen are up 17 percent, and paper napkins are up 20 percent. A package of bottled water that used to be $5 is now $8.49, Sabido said, an increase of nearly 70 percent.

Big ticket items also have gone up. The parish bought a freezer in September 2021 for $3,960. It wanted a second freezer this spring; in May, the same model freezer cost $5,197, an increase of more than 30 percent in eight months, and it took three more months to arrive because of supply chain issues, Sabido said.

Food pantry staff members said people can help by donating directly to them or to the Greater Chicago Food Depository in Cook County and the Northern Illinois Food Bank in Lake County, regional food banks that serve food pantries across their service area. They can also volunteer at the pantries. At the same time, Moore and Holmes said, they can advocate for public policies to alleviate hunger.

“Hunger is a big problem in the U.S.,” Holmes said. “We are constantly asking for more resources to make sure people are getting fed. We can accomplish so much more in our day if we are not constantly hungry.”

To find a food pantry near you, visit the Greater Chicago Food Depository website at for Cook County and the Northern Illinois Food Bank for Lake County at To volunteer or donate, visit or contact your local food pantry.



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