Susan Blacknik strolled through rows of shelves at the Creswell Food Pantry. She passed empty spaces and cases upon cases of canned beans and pureed pumpkin.
“I don’t like to see bare shelves over there, and there’s more bare shelves than I’ve seen since I started six years ago,” she said.
With the winter months approaching, Blachnik, the pantry manager, said food stocks always get a little lower, but a drive held by Creslane Elementary and South Lane County Fire & Rescue brought in 3,844 pounds of food on Nov. 21. However, by Nov. 22, that much and then some was gone.
Those supplies help maintain a shopping-style experience for pantry patrons. That shopping style lets clients get products they actually like and will eat, something that’s hard to do without a lot of stock.
“If you don’t like lentils, you don’t have to take lentils,” said FOOD for Lane County spokesperson Dawn Marie Woodward.
When pantries get a lot of one item, as can be the case with shipments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they will offer recipes to help clients figure out how to use that food.
Still, maintaining that supermarket-style environment has gotten more difficult as supplies have gotten tighter. The Creswell pantry has had more patrons in the last few months and that’s making it harder to give out as much food as they would like, Blachnik said. For example, the pantry has been forced to reduce the amount of meat from three or four pounds to just two pounds per person.
“We have to use portion control. We were still giving everyone 15 pounds of food per person each visit [up to 18 visits a year], but now we're reducing the amount of meat in order to be sure all shoppers receive meat. We'll try to get that amount back up, but we'll have to see how that goes," she said, adding that she hopes that the addition of the Creslane food drive supplies will help.
Demand at the Creswell pantry has been up 42 percent since July. That’s among the five highest demand-increases in the county. FFLC supplies and other donations should keep the pantry stocked well enough, but that increased demand means Blachnik has to stretch already thin supplies even further.
It’s not clear exactly why demand is up — 12 percent across Lane County on average — even as the USDA has found that food insecurity had been decreasing through 2018. Rising rent, stagnant wages and changes to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, previously known as food stamps, may be factors. The Creswell pantry, FFLC and the Community Sharing Program in Cottage Grove all mentioned SNAP benefit changes in their assessment of the growth in demand.
“Any time we see benefits decreasing for people, the natural response for people [is] to seek out food at an emergency pantry,” Woodward said.
Benefits are administered by individual states, though the federal government can change the rules on who qualifies.
The current rule changes being considered by the USDA, for which one of the public comment periods ended Dec. 2, would prevent states from automatically extending “categorical eligibility” for SNAP benefits to those who also use programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, effectively removing more than three million people across the nation from SNAP, including some 66,000 Oregonians, according to the Oregon Food Bank.
It would also cut the dollar amount of benefits for thousands more in the Beaver State.
The FFLC-network pantries — 31 in total — don’t abide by the same rules. They run on the honor system; no one who uses the service has to prove identity, income or residence.
“If people really need food, we want them to be able to access it. Our mission is that nobody should be hungry. Let’s all have access to food,” Woodward said.
A July rule change by FFLC tried to increase that access by allowing people to visit any food pantry they distribute to in the county. As a result, the Creswell pantry has seen patrons from as far as Florence and Dorena come through their door.
Another contributing factor could be low wages in Lane County. Forty-five percent of residents live at or under the ALICE threshold — a measurement of those people who are employed but make just enough to pay the bills — according to a 2016 report from United Way.
That contributes to 11.1 percent (about 460,000) of Oregonians lacking dependable access to enough food to lead a healthy lifestyle, according to the USDA.
SNAP benefits and pantries are critical to meeting the needs of those Oregonians.
Patrons of rural pantries in particular have more ongoing need. FFLC calculated that rural pantries see repeat visitors an average of five times per year, compared to four times for the Eugene and Springfield pantries.
One of the reasons rural pantries see more repeat visitors is a lack of access to grocery stores. Small communities like Creswell have seen grocery stores close or never had one to begin with. That forces Creswellians to go to Eugene, Springfield or Cottage Grove to do their shopping.
For the patrons of FFLC pantries, many of whom fall under the ALICE threshold, that extra expense is too much to bear.
“If [people] are on a limited income, they are making decisions as to where that money is going,” Woodward said. “We see that the food budget in every household is the most flexible.”
Woodward said that despite the high homeless population in the county, that isn’t who the majority of pantry patrons are.
“Most are the working poor, for lack of a better term,” she said. “For the most part, they can cover their expenses. But when the unexpected happens, that’s when they need extra help.”
Even as demand has grown, pantries have been able to keep feeding those in-need, thanks to the generosity of others. Lane County residents have stepped up to help pantries all over the county. Donations poured in during the “Stamp Out Hunger” food drive led by the National Association of Letter Carriers and from grocery stores, farmers and individuals all year long. Those donations help maintain the shopping-style pantry experience.
“The community support, in those ways, makes a huge difference,” Blachnik said. “If we were only depending on Food for Lane County, we would do fine. But we wouldn’t do as well, you know what I mean?”
Supporting the pantry goes beyond donations. An all-volunteer workforce keeps things running. Sanipac provides free trash and recycling services to the building. PayneWest Insurance in Cottage Grove donated 400 pounds of food and many hours of labor when the Creslane donation came in to make sure everything was properly sorted.
Still, there’s no question there are some challenges for the Creswell pantry. It runs on a shoestring budget of just $6,000 per year and it’s in need of more volunteers to expand its operating hours to better serve the community. Coupled with the increased demand, the pantry has some difficult roads ahead.
“We just have to be faithful that it’s going to work,” Blachnik said. “It always works.”