Alaska food pantries see a drop in demand but worry as pandemic benefits set to sunset

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Food pantries across Alaska saw a huge spike in demand during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The end of pandemic benefits could see that demand rise again.

“When the pandemic hit, we saw a 75% increase in those folks needing additional help,” said Jim Baldwin, the CEO of the Alaska Food Bank.

Tens of thousands of jobs were lost and Alaskans needed help with food. The jump in need was seen by food pantries across the state providing emergency aid.

“In the first month, we saw a 30% increase and 50% of those were new clients,” said Lisa Aquino, the executive director of Catholic Social Services. “It was something unbelievable like that.”

The Alaska Food Bank opened a second warehouse at the closed Sam’s Club building in Anchorage. Over 5,000 boxes filled with food have also been distributed there. “It really made that space tremendously helpful,” Baldwin said.

In recent weeks and months, the number of Alaskans seeking food help has tapered off as state and federal benefits have made a difference. There is still a steady stream of need.

“This last week, we saw 216 households and about six per day are new clients who’ve never been with us before, they’ve never needed that extra help,” Aquino said.

The Alaska Food Bank has continued to see an expanded need for its services as it ships food across the state.

“We distributed 367,338 pounds more than we did in the same timeframe as last year, so over 300,000 more meals. We do not have numbers for this past month but we are continuing to see twice as many clients at our Mobile Food Pantries,” said Jenny Di Grappa, director of donor relations and communication.

Inside the front door of the Catholic Social Services’ main office building, Isabella Waits hands out boxes filled with food. She speaks to people who never thought they’d need help.

“We met this couple last month who moved up here for work and then when everything happened their jobs weren’t here anymore,” Waits said. “Everyone is in crazy circumstances just trying to make everything work.”

A concern on the horizon is that an extra $600-per week in federal unemployment benefits is set to sunset on July 25. Moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures in Alaska are also set to sunset on July 1.

Experience shows that when money gets tight, people will prioritize making utility payments and house payments. “We know that one of the first things that people will reduce is food,” Aquino said.

Another concern is that food pantries across the country see fewer donations in the summer. Donations increase around the holidays when families in need are front of mind. “It’s still a huge problem,” Aquino said.

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