Rick Gaupo, CEO of Marion Polk Food Share opens up a Farm to Families food box at the organization's facility on May 22, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Food pantry usage in the Salem area rose sharply in March after nearly returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Local pantries supplied by Marion Polk Food Share saw a total of 13,186 visits in March, an 18% increase from the average number of visits over the previous six months, according to data provided by the organization. January and February visits averaged about 10,800 monthly.

Rick Gaupo, CEO of Marion Polk Food Share, said it’s too soon to tell if the uptick is a fluke or a new trend, but he believes the pressures of inflation and the end of some social programs helping lower income families are to blame.

“Inflation at the store or the gas station or wherever makes it harder for the money to last the month,” he said.

Gaupo said the December expiration of the expanded child tax credit, which gave most parents a few hundred extra dollars per month, has also put strain on family budgets.

“That was a great federal program that is largely credited with helping reduce the number of visits to pantries and really help stabilize child poverty issues,” Gaupo said.

The food share saw a large uptick in people seeking help in 2020 at the dozens of food pantries it supplies across the region.

Before the pandemic, about 10,000 families got help with food every month at those pantries. That number spiked in the spring of 2020 as people got laid off, then declined in the summer before rising again. By December 2020, local food pantries were averaging around 13,000 families each month seeking help.

In 2021, demand returned to more normal levels, Gaupo said.

He said for now, the food share can meet the demand they’re seeing. But he’s concerned about the future - both if the number of families needing help remains high or continues to rise, and because the food share is also strained by the same inflation and supply chain problems facing businesses and organizations across the U.S.

“If today was our new status quo, we would still have over 10,000 families visiting a pantry a month and we would be providing them great food,” Gaupo said.

He said that figure shouldn’t be acceptable to Salem - and he predicts demand will remain higher so long as inflation and high fuel prices persist.

Marion Polk Food Share gets food from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and partnerships with local businesses and farmers.

Gaupo said they’ve recently had trouble with ordered food not making it to Salem. A truckload of sweet potatoes coming out of the Carolinas never arrived, he said, and a truckload of carrots shipping from Mexico got stuck at the Texas border and didn’t make it either.

A local program the food share offers to cover labor and fuel costs for farmers to harvest crop they’d otherwise leave behind in the fields is also more challenging as both labor and fuel prices have climbed.

The food share’s Meals on Wheels program, which delivers meals to homebound seniors and people with disabilities, also saw a significant jump in demand during the pandemic which has remained high.

Now, about 725 people get meals through the program daily on about 60 routes, up from about 40 routes serving 450 clients per day pre-pandemic.

Gaupo said he expects that number to remain high.

“The inflationary pressures are uniquely painful for the elderly in the community,” he said. “We’re not saying to that 80-year-old woman who’s living by herself - ‘Oh, the economy’s strong, go get your job.’”

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

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM - We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!