Expenses are up 140% for CT nonprofit’s food pantries. Person to Person CEO says it’s due to inflation and high need.

DARIEN— In the lead-up to Thanksgiving, Nancy Coughlin is dealing with what she calls a “perfect storm” of costs in the lower Fairfield County-based food assistance organization she runs.

Coughlin is the CEO of Person to Person, a nonprofit that runs three full-time food pantries, one each in Darien, Norwalk and Stamford. This year, the organization is reporting that expenses are up 140 percent from the same time period in 2020.

There are a lot of reasons for that increase, Coughlin said. She described the current financial crunch as multifaceted: The economy is seeing record inflation; social nets from the pandemic, like stimulus money and readily available unemployment benefits, are tapering off; and the state’s eviction moratorium lifted June 30, leaving tenants in lower Fairfield County — already dealing with a lack of affordable housing — struggling to pay rent.

All of that has contributed to what Coughlin said she sees as an unflagging need for what Person to Person offers — nutritious food for food-insecure families, and lots of it.

“The problem and the challenge right now is that people are feeling optimistic that the pandemic is over,” Coughlin said. “And so they equate that in their minds with people don’t have the same level of need anymore... But the truth of the matter is much more complex than that. We see that there is still a tremendous amount of need in the community.”

At the height of the pandemic, the organization provided food to about 9,000 people each month from 3,000 households, Coughlin said. That number went down in the spring to about 2,500 households. Now, the number is creeping back up, with around 2,800 households and 8,000 people served monthly.

Person to Person serves seven towns that surround Stamford and Norwalk, Coughlin said. About 60 percent of clients come from Stamford and 35 percent come from Norwalk. The other 5 percent come from the surrounding communities, including Darien.

But though food need has not dwindled over the pandemic and now into the holidays, Coughlin said her own costs have skyrocketed.

Part of that is inflation. The consumer price index rose 6.2 percent over the past year through October, the highest inflation rate in more than 30 years.

Person to Person sources much of its food wholesale. It relies on food drives and donations. What it can’t source for free or with reduced prices, it pays for. But the cost of everyday fresh food staples is up — like onions, which are up 33 percent, Coughlin said.

And inflation has likely made people more tight-fisted, said David Cadden, professor emeritus of entrepreneurship and strategy at Quinnipiac University.

“People are turning around constantly saying this is the largest increase in inflation in 30 years,” Cradden said. “People will be willing to spend money on themselves but I imagine it may affect their decision on how much they’re going to buy for a food bank.”

High food costs are also closely intertwined with shortages from the supply chain and in labor, said Mohammad Elahee, professor of international business at Quinnipiac University.

“The problem is twofold,” Elahee said. “One is not every state is self-sufficient in food. So we have to get from other parts of the country. But now, there’s a tremendous shortage of truck drivers. We cannot send the food from California to Connecticut easily.”

Relief, for food banks and for the general population, could come in five or six months when many economists predict prices will stabilize, Elahee said.

Until then, Coughlin will be running her organization with lower numbers of volunteers — many stopped coming to the food bank during the pandemic — and higher costs.

That’s unsustainable in the long term. If the current situation continues, she’ll have to make some hard decisions, Coughlin said.

But ultimately, “We can’t be deterred by the fact that the problems are too big,” she said. “We have to find a little piece that we each can do. And then we go to bed at night knowing that we did our part.”

raga.justin@hearst.com