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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Volunteers Teresa Cate, left, and Cathy Puzan put together food boxes at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank Foxwood Plaza emergency food box distribution site on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.

Chattanooga-area food assistance programs are feeling the strain of inflation as food prices soar, triggering higher demand from families who need help.

The Chattanooga Area Food Bank's Emergency Food Assistance Program is seeing a 50% increase in need compared to the demand seen at the height of the pandemic, according to Jennifer Fritts, the food bank's community engagement director.

When the pandemic was at its peak in mid- to late-2021, the program served around 100 families a day. Now, it serves upwards of 150 families a day, and about 1 in 5 of those families have never used the program, Fritts said.

The Red Bank Community Food Pantry, which is one of the largest food pantries in the county and serves about 2,500 people a month, has seen about a 25% increase in demand since February, according to the Rev. Ken Sauer, the pastor of Red Bank United Methodist Church, where the pantry is based.

"The price of gasoline and groceries has gotten crazy, so we're seeing a lot more folks who are senior citizens living on fixed incomes, and it's just not going far enough," Sauer said. "We see more younger people that have families, and maybe they don't make a lot of money, so it's not going far enough now."

Fritts said she mainly attributes the increase in demand to changes in pandemic-related government assistance and rising food costs.

Households in Tennessee and Georgia served by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are no longer receiving emergency supplements to their regular benefits to assist with temporary food needs during the pandemic. Those benefits ended in December 2021 in Tennessee and are set to expire at the end of May in Georgia.

An additional allotment provided to families whose children qualify for free or reduced price lunches while schools were closed during the pandemic ended when schools reopened, Fritts said.

At the same time, the price index for food at home increased by 10.8% over the previous 12 months for the year ending in April, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending in November 1980. The index for meats, poultry, fish and eggs increased 14.3% over the past year, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending May 1979, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Households at risk of food insecurity are spending about a third of their income on food, in addition to paying gas and rent prices that are at an all-time high, Fritts said.

"I can't say enough how we expect food insecurity to rise over the next year," she said.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga area food pantries look to fill need as high level of food insecurity expected to last for years)

The final day of school for Hamilton County Schools was Wednesday, and no additional pandemic-related supplements to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits are available to households to help feed those children, she said.

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Demand for food assistance in Chattanooga area now exceeds need at the height of pandemic

To fill that gap, the food bank's mobile pantries visit schools over the summer, and families who qualify for free and reduced price lunch can receive 8-pound "family bags" filled with family-size foods. Any household in need is also able to pick up a month's worth of groceries every 30 days through the Emergency Food Assistance Program, Fritts said.

(READ MORE: Vanderbilt policy center finds food insecurity persists in Tennessee's children)

"We need the government to continue with their programs through the Emergency Food Assistance Program where they are providing food banks with additional food so that we can continue mobile pantries and the family bags," she said. "Just like the families that we serve are struggling to stretch a budget that doesn't buy as much as it did last year, we aren't immune to that, and we're suffering the same consequences."

The food bank is paying at least 25-30% more to transport food and up to 40% more to purchase food, she said.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga to use more than $200,000 in federal funding to benefit food bank)

Also, a dramatic decrease in food donations from retailers and individuals is forcing the food bank to purchase more food, Fritz said.

Sauer said most donations to the Red Bank pantry are monetary, and those have significantly decreased.

"That's something we're a little bit worried about," he said. "We're going to have to do some fundraising and things like that that we didn't have to do for the past couple of years."

Fritts said the food bank's Foxwood Food Center, where its emergency food boxes are distributed, is in critical need of volunteers. The Red Bank pantry also needs volunteers, Sauer said.

"You always leave in a better mood than when you came," he said. "When we help people, it makes us happy as human beings."

For food assistance, Hamilton County residents can call 211 or text their ZIP code to 898-211 to request a voucher for an emergency food box. Others can visit bit.ly/CafBank to locate a partner agency distributing food.

To make a donation or to sign up to volunteer at the Red Bank food pantry, visit redbankfoodpantry.org. To donate or learn more about volunteering at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, visit chattfoodbank.org or call 423-622-1800.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.

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