Charities pay top dollar to feed people for Thanksgiving


NEWBURGH — Janet Meshanko isn’t sure what she’ll be able to do for Thanksgiving this year. The 80-year-old lost her job last week, making it harder than usual to afford the rising cost of groceries.

Her last paycheck will arrive this week, she said, and then she will have to find other ways to get by until she finds another job.

“I’m trying to make ends meet,” Meshanko said, noting that a problem with a water heater in her Van Ness Street home forced her to take showers at a local gymnasium. She may end up having dinner at a local church on this holiday.

“I will depend on many sources in our community, including the Salvation Army,” Meshanko said as she stood in line outside Deacon Jack Seymour’s pantry – a ministry of St. Assisi and Sacred Heart Church on Robinson Avenue – Friday morning.

She was one of hundreds of people who visited the pantry that day. Linda Zalanowski, who runs the twice-weekly giveaway with her husband, Paul, said more than 600 families had been served the previous two weekends.

Similar scenes of increased need for food have been seen in other areas of Newburgh and across the Hudson Valley as charity food vendors prepare for holiday distributions.

People’s Place, a food pantry in Kingston that serves everyone living in Ulster County year-round and has an annual Thanksgiving program, has served 1,400 families, feeding more than 4,000 last year. It expects to serve about that many people this year, based on signups.

“Over the past five months, we’ve grown more than 20%,” said People’s Place executive director Christine Hein. “The Community Cafe has doubled in the last six months.” And due to increased needs and rising food prices, the organization has spent “significantly more money this year than last year” to prepare its Thanksgiving meals.

Christine Hein, Executive Director of People’s Place.

Tony Adamis / Special for the Times Union

People's Place volunteers in Kingston served a free Thanksgiving meal to community members on November 16th.  Inflation and other economic factors have affected people needing free meals this year and meal providers.

People’s Place volunteers in Kingston served a free Thanksgiving meal to community members on November 16th. Inflation and other economic factors have affected people needing free meals this year and meal providers.

Tony Adamis / Special for the Times Union

Price up

The state of the economy, particularly driver shortages, fuel price hikes and inflation, has erased some of the gains food agencies have seen since the start of the pandemic.

By the end of 2019, the Hudson Valley Food Bank distributed 16 million pounds of food through its network of hundreds of member agencies and partnerships in Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Sullivan, Rockland and Ulster counties. At the end of 2020, affected by the pandemic, the food bank distributed 22 million pounds of food.

“Then (the need) stabilized,” said Sara Gunn, director of the food bank. “And then at the beginning of this year, with inflation and fuel prices, demand started to pick up again.”

She continued, “This year has been a difficult time, but we have been successful because of so many wonderful community partners who donated not only food but also monetary donations. Plus, we have wonderful volunteers.”

FeedHV, a food security program that connects farmers and other food businesses to feed agencies, has heard of similar issues from its regional partners, said Mary Ann Johnson, who administers the program and is director. Assistant to the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation.

Much of the need appears to be concentrated in the region’s urban centers, she said, while noting that food insecurity also affects many people in rural areas of the Hudson Valley.

The story of challenges to helping food insecure people around Thanksgiving seems to be getting worse, locally and nationally, year after year. In September, the Farm Bureau forecast that Thanksgiving costs would be record high, with retail food prices rising about 11% in August. Last year, charity meal providers lamented an expensive holiday with sky-high prices for turkeys. A survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation reported in 2021 that the average cost of a standard Thanksgiving meal increased 14% from 2020.

Food at People's Place in Kingston.

Food at People’s Place in Kingston.


Tony Adamis / Special for the Times Union
Jeffrey Lozano, director of food planning at People's Place, tends to canned inventory in the pantry.

Jeffrey Lozano, director of food planning at People’s Place, tends to canned inventory in the pantry.


Tony Adamis / Special for the Times Union


Grocery purchases are 13% higher than in September 2021, posing challenges for food pantries. At right, Jeffrey Lozano, director of food planning at People’s Place, tends to canned inventory in the pantry. (Tony Adamis / Times Union Special)

According to an analysis by Wells Fargo, rapid inflation, weather- and climate-related supply issues and bird flu are among the main factors affecting food prices this year. Some experts say that depending on a person’s situation, eating out may be the most profitable option this year.

Supermarket prices have soared because grocery shopping is 13% higher than in September 2021. Year-over-year price increases of essential Thanksgiving ingredients (butter, flour and eggs) are particularly blatant. The average 16-pound turkey cost $24 in 2021, or about $1.50 a pound, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. The price of a turkey this year is 23 percent higher due to inflation and bird flu, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

The index for all foods rose 0.7% from August to September, and overall food prices were 11.2% higher than in September 2021.

Some big grocery stores, like Walmart and Aldi, are trying to help ease the pressure on consumers. Walmart recently announced that it will charge last year’s average price for certain food items that are customer favorites for holiday meals, such as ready-to-heat macaroni and cheese, turkeys, ham and stuffing. Walmart’s adjusted prices will last until Christmas. Likewise, Aldi is charging 2019 prices for some popular vacation items.

greater need

Irma Bahr-Madrid who runs Newburgh Loaves and Fishes, a longtime interfaith Thanksgiving distribution, and spent eight years volunteering at a local weekend soup kitchen. What was once a steady stream of 70 to 80 people looking for free meals has grown into a constant crowd of more than 100 people since the spring, she said. Sometimes there are up to 150.

In response to the increased distress it has seen at the soup kitchen, Loaves and Fishes has planned to expand its Thanksgiving distribution to Deacon Jack Seymour’s pantry on Saturday. This year they sought to distribute 800 turkeys, up from 700 last year.

The generosity came at a cost: Loaves and Fishes estimated that transporting this year’s turkey would cost around $17,000. Last year, the organization paid about $10,000 for 600 turkeys from the Hudson Valley Food Bank and received 100 more through donations.

Although Bahr-Madrid is worried about the price – a few late, large donations after an interfaith church service across the city, to her relief, closed the gap on the cost – she wanted to help as many people as possible benefit holidays.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, it’s wonderful that you’re doing this,’ and you say, ‘Yeah, it’s wonderful, but it’s really awful,'” Bahr-Madrid said. “People shouldn’t be in such need that they can’t buy food. It’s just not right.”

People's Place volunteers in Kingston served a free Thanksgiving meal to community members on November 16th.  Inflation and other economic factors have affected people needing free meals this year and meal providers.

People’s Place volunteers in Kingston served a free Thanksgiving meal to community members on November 16th. Inflation and other economic factors have affected people needing free meals this year and meal providers.

Tony Adamis / Special for the Times Union

Previous The road to low-carbon concrete
Next Key economic sign shows inflation in Europe may have already peaked