EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The donation of 400 hams to a food bank here, stocking the warehouse-sized refrigerator with 1.5 tons of meat, was particularly charitable, given the relatively high price of pork.

Meat in general is more expensive than it was two years ago, making it a cherished commodity at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey’s Southern Branch with Easter approaching.

“I think peanut butter and tuna fish and eggs — they’re inexpensive to buy, they’re inexpensive for the government to buy — that’s the basic protein of many poor families,” said Evelyn Benton, executive director of the food bank. “A meat item is a real treat for them.”

The hams have a combined weight that rivals a Chevrolet Cruze and a wholesale bulk value of about $10,000.

They were donated by the National Pork Producers Council in Washington, D.C., its only such donation in New Jersey this year in light of the region’s unemployment and economic struggles, said Jeremy Davis, grass-roots director at the council.

Much of the food bank’s meat comes from a program in which 22 area supermarkets and retailers freeze the ground beef, flank steak and bacon they can’t sell and donate it, Benton said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also provides some of the meat, as do individuals who donate the free turkeys they receive through supermarket promotions, she said.

Ham donations are rare, she said.

The meat is a staple at many Easter dinner tables, and it has become a more expensive one, too.

Ham prices are up nearly 24 percent in the past two years, according to the Consumer Price Index.

The average for a pound of ham, excluding sliced and canned ham, was $3.22 in February, the latest month available.

Ground beef is up too, about 25 percent, in those two years.

Supply and demand are driving the market — pork prices rose after the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus surfaced in 2013 and killed millions of pigs in the United States.

Emerging Asian markets also were behind higher demand, and “bacon has been a big driver,” Davis said.

Anyone who saw a Little Caesars commercial for a bacon-wrapped pizza, or candy shops selling chocolate-covered bacon, can attest to the salted pork’s commercial appeal.

But pork prices should settle back down; the Department of Agriculture expects them to fall this year.

The hog industry is expanding as “aggressive actions by producers, including increased biosecurity measures and vaccination, have contributed to lowering the disease incidence, and limiting losses of newborn pigs from PEDv,” the USDA reported in January.

The U.S expects 23.9 billion pounds of pork to be produced in 2015, nearly 5 percent more than last year, with dropping prices expected due to larger availability of market hogs.

Davis also anticipates pork prices will go down.

Some of that is driven by the industry’s ability to rebound quickly based on the relatively short time period from gestation to market, about nine months, he said.

And a litter can yield seven to nine pigs.

“That’s how the pork industry has been able to keep up with Asian Pacific demand much easier,” he said.

Contact Brian Ianieri:

609-272-7253

@BIanieri on Twitter

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