Food insecurity in New York City soared during the COVID-19 pandemic as many people lost work and steady income. As the city is slowly bouncing back, the number of people in need of emergency food has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, according to new data from the food rescue organization City Harvest.

In the first half of 2022, New Yorkers visited food pantries and soup kitchens about 3.5 million times per month, on average, according to City Harvest. That’s up 68% from the first half of 2019.

The number of visits is down from a pandemic peak of more than 4.1 million in March 2021. But City Harvest suspects the rising cost of food and other goods may be forcing demand to stay high, as the use of emergency food resources in the city has started rebounding over the past six months.

Due to inflation and a combination of other global factors, prices for at-home food have gone up nearly 12% in the New York City-metro area over the past year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The prices in grocery stores are rising faster than in restaurants, where prices have only increased 7.5%. The trends mirror what’s happening nationally.

“We began to see some drops in visits to food pantries across the five boroughs late last year, but New Yorkers were definitely hit very hard by inflation and the expiration of vital government supports like the child tax credits,” said Jilly Stephens, CEO of City Harvest. “That's really what we believe is driving this increase in the number of visits to food pantries across the city [this year].”

Every borough has seen visits to food pantries and soup kitchens go up during the pandemic, but not all have been affected equally. Queens saw the biggest leap in demand, according to City Harvest. The borough’s pantries and soup kitchens had more than 1 million monthly visits, on average, during the first six months of this year — an increase of 139% from the first half of 2019.

Brooklyn’s pantries and kitchens are also seeing more than 1 million monthly visits this year, representing a 55% increase over 2019.

A significant share of the New Yorkers who rely on these supplementary food sources are children. Food pantries and soup kitchens served children 580,140 times this June, a 75% increase from June 2019.

The high prices are also squeezing the pantries themselves, making it harder for some to procure the same amount of inventory they once did.

Advocates have been pushing benefits such as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) as a more sustainable way to address hunger than relying on kitchens and pantries. The federal government is boosting the amount of money SNAP enrollees get each month as long as the state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic lasts.

But there is uncertainty about when those supplemental funds will run out. The higher payments are currently slated to extend at least through November.

Stephens said City Harvest and other local organizations addressing hunger are preparing to bring New Yorkers’ concerns to the national Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health that the White House is hosting at the end of this month.