A volunteer at Marion Polk Food Share packs green beans on Aug. 5, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The number of people visiting food pantries in the Salem area has fallen in 2021 after climbing sharply in 2020.

But Rick Gaupo, CEO of Marion Polk Food Share, said it’s unclear how long that trend will last as many of the welfare programs expanded during the Covid pandemic to help struggling families are set to expire in the coming months.

“We’re in the murky middle,” Gaupo said.

The dozens of local food pantries that Food Share supplies served 13,600 families monthly seeking help in 2020.

Pre-pandemic, that number was closer to 10,000 families per month. For 2021 so far, local food pantries are averaging 11,800 visits per month, with June 2021 declining to 10,500.

Visits to food pantries served by Marion Polk Food Share climbed sharply in 2020 and have declined in 2021, though not to pre-pandemic levels (Graph by Marion Polk Food Share)

Gaupo met Thursday with Joel Berg, the CEO of New York-based Hunger Free America, who stopped in Salem as part of a nationwide tour to highlight the ongoing problem of food insecurity in the U.S.

The two men talked for about an hour with each other and Salem Reporter about how the U.S. social safety net has expanded during the pandemic and the role food pantries played in responding to Covid.

Unlike the 2008 recession, which saw some wealthy Americans lose their livelihoods, Berg said the Covid-related recession chiefly pushed people already on the margins into more extreme poverty.

“It was poor people becoming poorer and hungrier,” Berg said.

Berg has held his role for 20 years, leading an organization that works to get food to people who are hungry, help them sign up for government assistance and lobbies for government programs to alleviate hunger.

“The stereotypes people have of who’s hungry and where there’s hunger are usually wrong,” Berg said.

Joel Berg of Hunger Free America visits Marion Polk Food Share on Aug. 5, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Across the U.S., Berg said the vast majority of people served by food pantries are working and housed, but don’t earn enough to cover all their bills. That leads families to skimp on food or seek help.

“You can’t ration your rent or you become homeless. You can’t ration your childcare or it goes away. You can ration your food,” he said.

Gaupo said that’s true of the people Marion Polk Food Share serves as well.

Both men said the U.S. is in a unique moment now where the often economically devastating effects of the Covid pandemic and related shutdowns have been somewhat blunted by an expanded social safety net.

Federal legislation has increased benefits for families already receiving food stamps, and thousands more families in Salem are now receiving additional food benefits to compensate them for school meals missed during school closures.

Most parents in July started receiving expanded federal child tax credit payments which are currently set to expire at the end of the year.

Oregon’s eviction moratorium expired June 30, but there’s a grace period for people who have applied for rental assistance.

Gaupo said all those policies are likely contributing to the decline in people seeking help from local food pantries.

Berg said for all the important work done by nonprofit organizations, churches and other private actors to distribute food to the hungry, social welfare programs remain a much larger source of help for Americans who can’t afford enough to eat.

In the rush to get help to Americans during the pandemic, federal and state agencies suspended many rules typically governing social assistance programs, allowing school districts to deliver brown bag meals using buses and government workers to more quickly approve people who qualify for food stamps.

As Berg has traveled across the country over the past two months, he said he’s heard a common theme in talking to government employees and nonprofit workers, regardless of political ideology or location: “Why didn’t we have this flexibility before?”

Gaupo said the expanded aid programs have helped, but it’s unclear whether there’s political will to continue programs helping families even once the pandemic is over.

“We don’t know if this is all going to be a Covid response or a new day,” Gaupo said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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