For Eric Cooper, CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, providing pet food alongside the food bank's regulation offerings of healthy, nutritious food for local families is all about keeping families together.
"I think back to this family I met. The dad lost his job and the parents decided they needed to give up the dog. It was an economic hardship, so they made the decision to surrender their pet," Cooper recalls. "Their little girl says to me, `Do you think they'll have to give me up too?' She saw no difference between herself and their pet as members of the family."
On September 26, PetSmart Charities, the non-profit arm of the major namesake retail giant, will introduce its inaugural "Pet Hunger Awareness Day to coincide with Feeding America's Hunger Action Month. The goal is drive attention to the dire need to help food insecure families to not only feed their furry companions, but also keep them.
"We're passionate about keeping pets together with their families because it's better for the health of the pets and their pet parents," said Aimee Gilbreath, president of PetSmart Charities. "Lending a hand to families in their time of need helps ensure pets stay in homes where they're loved and out of shelters."
"People showing up with their pets'
Family pets, for most of us, are family members. And when families are food insecure, the added financial burden of buying pet food often translates to a heart-wrenching decision to either give pets away to shelters, or worse, abandon them.
The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the issue. People adopted more pets during stay-at-home orders, but recently shelters have seen an uptick in both people surrendering their pets or leaving them on the streets.
PetSmart Charities connected the dots during the pandemic noticing that if more people were seeking assistance from food banks, they probably had a pet at home that needed help too since an overwhelming majority of Americans own pets.
"We wanted to help," Melisa Pratt, senior community partnership manager at PetSmart Charities said. "How do we help on both ends of the leash? How do we get pet food to run alongside human food to help serve the whole family?"
Remembering its pilot program with a small Arizona food pantry that handed out dog and cat food with grocery bags full of food, PetSmart Charities called Feeding America to see if they could scale a program together. Feeding America is a network of 200 food banks and even more partner food pantries operating in every state in the country including Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. Now, more than 113 Feeding America food banks offer pet food, in addition, to human food and household essentials.
Since 2019, PetSmart Charities has donated more than 30 million pounds of freshly made pet food for national distribution with Feeding America. That's more than 307 million meals that may not have been served otherwise.
At the Food Bank of the Rockies, pet food pickups are coinciding with a sharp increase in demand at the food bank's mobile pantry owing, staff say, to inflation and the end of SNAP emergency allotments.
"A number of people are showing up with their pets," said Aditi Desai, chief marketing officer at the food bank. "As this partnership has ripened, people have come to enjoy a consistent stream of pet food. It's highly requested."
`Logic to the partnership'
According to PetSmart Charities research, 30 million pets face hunger every year. To make matters worse, the cost of owning a pet -- rising pet food costs, toys, training, veterinary care -- are up 11 percent this year from last and expected to keep rising, according to the American Pet Products Association.
For families feeling the squeeze of high prices all around, from groceries to rent and transportation to utilities, adding in those rising pet expenses can be a budget buster.
Cooper, from the San Antonio Food Bank, describes the Feeding America and PetSmart Charities partnership as an opportunity to ease some household financial pressure. He said it's translated into "tens of thousands of families helped."
"We have 14,000 seniors getting food boxes each month. We were buying [canned] tuna to get a nice mix [of protein], only to learn that some of the seniors were feeding the tuna to their cats!" he said. "There's logic to a partnership like this."
Contact your local food bank if you or someone you know needs pet food assistance.