Ozarks Food Harvest provides food assistance throughout the Ozarks often via mobile food pantries such as this one.
Ozarks Food Harvest provides food assistance throughout the Ozarks often via mobile food pantries such as this one. (Photo: Ozarks Food Harvest)

The pandemic had people lining up for free groceries amid shortages and job losses — yet today’s inflated cost of food is causing more trouble at local food pantries than peak 2020. 

“It’s a little daunting to see the numbers and the need continue to go up,” said Bart Brown, president and CEO of Ozarks Food Harvest.

Located in north Springfield, Ozarks Food Harvest is the Feeding America food bank for Southwest Missouri, serving 270 hunger-relief organizations across 28 Ozarks counties, including Crosslines in Greene County and Least of These in Christian County. 

During the height of the pandemic, Ozarks Food Harvest partnered with the Missouri National Guard to get food out to the masses via mobile food pantries. At that time, the Food Bank was primarily serving new clients who had never needed food assistance before.

“We were serving folks that were situationally affected by the shutdown, by layoffs, by food shortage and supply chain interruptions,” Brown said. “It was kind of like a disaster response, what we do after a tornado. We had trucks out with food and water and all that.”

More seek help with groceries, costs continue to rise 

Since last fall, the Food Bank’s network of food pantries has served an average of 62,000 individuals each month — nearly 12,000 more than during the same time periods in 2020 and 2021.

“You’ve also got an unprecedented increase in rent and housing costs, especially here in Southwest Missouri,” he said. “Peoples’ salaries are just not keeping up with how much it cost to rent a place.

“That, combined with a 40-year (high) food inflation cost,” Brown said. “It’s really kind of a perfect storm for us. We kind of thought we could take a breath after two years of disaster response, but really it looks like we are in for a long haul in increased demand over and above what we were doing with COVID.”

As more people are seeking help with groceries, rising transportation costs and inflation are hitting the Food Bank especially hard. 

Bart Brown is the president and CEO of Ozarks Food Harvest
Bart Brown is the president and CEO of Ozarks Food Harvest. (Photo: Ozarks Food Harvest)

“Our transportation budget is a million dollars more than what it was last year,” Brown said. “There’s a 30 to 40 percent increase in trucking cost.

“Everything — drivers, fuel, trucks, truck parts,” he continued. “If you have a truck that breaks down, the part is going to cost you three to four times as much, and it’s going to be six months out before you can get it.”

Obviously the rising cost of food is going to hurt its bottom line, but Ozarks Food Harvest is now receiving significantly less food from the federal government compared to the pandemic years. 

During the height of the pandemic, the amount of food provided to Ozarks Food Harvest by the federal government tripled so that the food bank could help families impacted by COVID. In the past year, that amount is now less than what it was in 2019, Brown said. 

“We saw federal programs surge at the height of COVID, and then they literally went away,” he said. “However, there are now more people being served every month than were at the height of COVID. That is severely impacting not only us, but our agencies.”

Overall, Brown said costs have gone up 40 percent year-over-year over the past two years.

“It’s probably the largest challenge in my 24 years of working for Ozarks Food Harvest,” Brown said. “I’m not understating that one bit.”

Brown said they haven’t had to cut back in terms of how much food they are able to distribute to food pantries, despite having far less federal food to send. 

“It’s a huge difference. That is why we are scrambling to raise more funds, raise more awareness,” he said, “because it’s not just us. It’s a network of nonprofits that are depending on us for this.”

How to help?

Ozarks Food Harvest has a list of easy ways to help and raise funds or food items on its website. But according to Brown, the best way to help feed more people is through financial donations. 

Ozarks Food Harvest leverages every $1 donated to $10 worth of food and services.

Prior to the pandemic, Ozarks Food Harvest had some 3,000 volunteers. Those looking to help the food bank can find lots of volunteer opportunities on the website. (Photo: Ozarks Food Harvest)

Find the nonprofits financials and audits from 2011 to 2022 on its website

But perhaps an even bigger way to help is to volunteer. 

Before the pandemic, Ozarks Food Harvest had more than 3,000 regular volunteers to help sort food and fill bags for the Weekend Backpack Program. 

“But all that went away with COVID. No one could come here,” Brown said. “It takes a while to build that back up. You can’t just turn a switch on and have 3,000 people coming here.” 

Visit the website to find volunteer opportunities during the week, in the evenings and weekends at the warehouse or at garden sites within the Springfield metro area. 

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald