As the year winds to a close, the Idaho Food Bank is seeing the biggest increase in demand for its services since the organization began 37 years ago.

Generated largely by the COVID-19 pandemic, food bank officials said food insecurity statewide has increased by more than 30 percent. That includes many senior citizens, the working poor and children.

“We definitely are seeing an increase of people,” said Michael Wigen, manager of the north central branch of the Idaho Food Bank at Lewiston.

Since the pandemic began, “we increased by 38 percent what we were distributing before. It was 2 million pounds a year before the pandemic. Now it’s 2.7 million.”

Last week the food bank and its associated branches handed out holiday food baskets to about 500 families in north central Idaho. That’s up from 300 to 400 last year. That demand has created a new baseline for the organization.

“Usually there is always an increase in October through December,” Wigen said. “More stresses in life happen during the holiday season. But the other thing we’ve seen is the unemployment rate and also an increase in new people needing assistance. Some (work compensation) benefits went back down; some are going back to work and some are struggling to meet the bills.

“There’s many more stresses right now on a normal working family. So we are definitely seeing where those families are able to utilize our services that we provide in free and donated food to help them in budgeting so they can meet their other needs.”

According to the Idaho Food Bank fiscal year report, 202,309 Idahoans were food insecure in 2021 including 57,620 children, which is 12.8 percent or one in eight of Idaho children.

More than 30 million pounds of food were distributed this year; 2.7 million pounds in north central Idaho alone.

Food distribution outlets include school backpack programs and school pantries, senior food programs, the emergency food assistance program, community food pantries, churches and mobile pantries.

Of that, 87 percent of the food that was distributed is considered nutritious by food bank officials and 84 percent of the food supply was donated. Nearly half of that donated food came from individuals, 18 percent from the government and 17 percent from corporations.

Total revenue of the food bank grew from $51.8 million in 2020 to $73.5 million in fiscal year 2021. Expenses increased from $43.4 million in 2020 to $60.3 million this year.

Wigen said the north central Idaho Food Bank works with 78 partner agencies that distribute food to their communities. In addition, many of the partner agencies lend support at certain times of the year, such as the holidays, when food boxes are packed and distributed or helping out with other needs.

Besides the three food bank branches in Lewiston, Moscow and Grangeville, some of the other brick and mortar pantries in the area include the Corner Cupboard in Nezperce; Lifeline in Orofino; the Community Action Agency in Lewiston and other locations; and the Pantry of Hope in Craigmont and Kamiah.

The Idaho Food Bank was created in 1984 when then-Gov. John Evans donated the space and cut the ribbon for the Idaho Foodbank Surplus Warehouse in Boise. It was the beginning of an effort to work with other local organizations, retailers, food growers, processors and industry to help solve the problem of hunger in Idaho.

During the pandemic the organization began collecting data that it intends to use in future planning.

“We’ve now been in the pandemic over a year,” Wigen said, “and we’ve got good statistical stuff from when the pandemic first hit. Now we are really doing a lot of research and how we are able to sustain and keep things going to meet the food insecurities in our area.”

That move forward will depend in large part on the partner agencies that work with the food bank to distribute goods. Statewide, there are more than 17,000 volunteers who help with the program.

“I also see an increase in the number of volunteers, which is huge,” Wigen said. “When we need more people to sort and bag the food … more volunteers want to help.”

Wigen added that being food insecure doesn’t necessarily mean that people are homeless or devastated.

“It’s really the people that are living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “You just don’t realize that is a type of food insecurity — not being able to know where your next meal is going to be financed by. That tends to be a large number of people.

“That’s a lot of blue collar, hard-working people and the Idaho Food Bank is interested in filling that gap. … We want those people that need a little bit of assistance to come out.

“Hunger is year-round. It seems to come out a little bit more during the holidays. I see the numbers go up because Christmas is busy for them; budgets are pinched and they need to reach in and get food assistance.

“Idahoans will take care of their own community. We just want to be the tool that helps them and provides them the food when they need that help.”

The Idaho Food Bank in Lewiston is at 3331 10th St., next to Rosauers, and can be reached at (208) 746-2288 or online at: idahofoodbank.org.

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.

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