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More people are relying on food pantries as grocery costs rise

 Volunteers with the St. Pete Free Clinic, Gary Hess and Betsy Judge, load fresh produce into a car at a drive-thru food bank location. Food relief is available to all Pinellas County residents.
St. Pete Free Clinic
Volunteers with the St. Pete Free Clinic, Gary Hess and Betsy Judge, load fresh produce into a car at a drive-thru food bank location. Food relief is available to all Pinellas County residents.

While Paris Cheffer was in between jobs he qualified for food stamps. Now he’s working again. But he says it’s just as hard to afford groceries.

“Look, I get paid and at the end of the day – I’m broke,” he said.

A recent survey shows Cheffer is not alone.

Nearly half of Floridians say inflation has impacted their ability to pay bills. Another three-fourths say that inflation has cut into their grocery spending, according to a USF survey published in April.

In January, Cheffer began driving through the We Help FRESH Pantry to reduce his family’s grocery bill. Now, he says, it’s a necessity. The fresh pantry, run by the St. Pete Free Clinic, provides free produce, meat and dairy.

The food pantry has seen its most significant increase in demand since the beginning of the pandemic, clinic CEO Jennifer Yeagley said.

“Amid the highest numbers of inflation we’ve seen in 40 years, as well as other extenuating circumstances,” Yeagley said. “Our numbers have actually gone up.”

Two years ago, demand tripled. In March of 2020, the number of fresh pantry customers jumped from around 6,000 to 18,000 per month. Since then, Yeagley says they’ve experienced a steady increase in need.

In June, the fresh pantry served 28,000 people, a 31% jump from two months prior. To keep up with demand, the pantry expanded operations to include two drive-thru sites and one indoor pantry.

 Cars line the street at a drive-thru food bank location provided by the St. Pete Free Clinic on July 12, 2022.
St. Pete Free Clinic
Cars line the street at a drive-thru food bank location provided by the St. Pete Free Clinic on July 12, 2022.

Other volunteer- and donation-based food distributors are seeing a similar trend.

Feeding Tampa Bay, which serves ten counties in west central Florida, has seen a steady increase in need. Between April and June, the Feeding America partner has distributed almost half a million more meals and applications for food assistance.

Jimari Hallam regularly volunteers with the program to hand out food. But lately, she’s found herself on the other side of the line — in need of food relief.

“As time has gone by, I find myself in lines with many others … for relief for myself and my two boys,” she wrote in an email.

As more people find themselves in need, some programs are struggling to keep up with the demand.

On Friday, Metropolitan Ministries put out a call for donations, reporting its food supplies are critically low. In a press release, spokesperson James Dunbar wrote that he's confident the setback can be resolved with community donations and food purchases.

“Until then, we are preparing for the situation to get worse before it gets better,” he wrote.

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

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Gabriella Paul