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If Pandemic Persists, Missouri Food Banks Warn That Their Shelves Could Soon Be Empty

Normally Harvesters relies on volunteers to sort and pack donations. But the pandemic is creating unprecedented demand at a time when it isn't safe to have lots of volunteers in the food bank's Kansas City warehouse.

Mass unemployment and coronavirus-related supply chain disruptions are making it tough for food banks to keep staples like peanut butter and tuna in stock.

More than half a million people are out of work in Kansas and Missouri, creating unprecedented demand on food banks.

Now some safety net organizations that feed the hungry are sounding an alarm: the worst is yet to come.

“Let me just lay it out for you in terms of timeline,” said Scott Baker, the executive director of Feeding Missouri, a coalition of the state’s six largest food banks. “As we sit here today, we have seen a significant increase in demand, but we also have inventory that’s available right now to meet the demand.

“As that inventory is depleted, though, we don’t know when we’re going to be refilled. We don’t know when we’ll find truckloads of food available for purchase. That might come in May, maybe June, could be July.”

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Pretty much everyone is experiencing supply chain issues, Baker said. Meat, canned beans and other proteins are running low. And toilet paper, which has been infamously hard to find since the pandemic began, is just now starting to reappear in stores.

Harvesters volunteers sort donations into categories. Right now, healthy, shelf-stable proteins like canned beans and meats are in short supply.

That means food banks and families alike can’t find what they’re looking for.

“You and I could go to the grocery store with $1 million and not leave with everything we need,” Baker said.

Kathy Fulton is the executive director of the American Logistics Aid Network, a Florida-based nonprofit that works with governments, businesses and charity organizations during disasters, usually hurricanes.

But this pandemic is different because not only has it disrupted the entire supply chain, it’s drastically changed consumers’ habits.

“Shoppers are going to retail locations and buying more because they’re eating at home. Less of those products are available for donation,” Fulton said. “Then you have the food away from home, which would be food service and restaurant sales, but it’s not packaged in a format that can be easily distributed in a pantry boxes.”

Take canned beans. Fulton said while plenty of large No. 10 cans are languishing on restaurant and cafeteria shelves, five or six pounds of beans is more than most families eat for dinner.

The needs of organizations like Kansas City Public Schools have changed, too.

Ray Weikal
Kansas City Public Schools
Kansas City Public Schools food service workers make sandwiches to distribute to students. Districts have been trying to get meals to students since schools closed in mid-March.

Instead of serving 20,000 hot meals per day, KCPS has been distributing sack breakfast and lunches in parking lots during the pandemic. Last week, Chief Financial Officer Linda Quinley told school board members it’s getting harder to find Uncrustables, the pre-packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that districts across the country are sending home to students.

Food service workers are able to make sandwiches, but that’s not ideal when the district is trying to limit exposure risk for employees. In some Missouri school districts, the National Guard has had to step in to distribute meals to students because food service workers have been quarantined.

That’s another serious problem for the supply chain, Fulton said.

“There are workforce concerns around personal protective equipment. How do they get masks? How do they get hand sanitizer? How do they get thermometers to check their employees’ temperatures? Are their employees willing to do that? Or are they going to push back on what they may see as invasive requests?”

But sick workers can bring operations to a standstill. Last week, Harvesters had to cancel some mobile distributions around Topeka because an employee was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Though that person’s test came back negative, the food bank is now requiring everyone to wear masks at work.

Harvesters spokeswoman Sarah Biles told KCUR earlier this month that the food bank had lots of fresh produce, which most pantries can’t store, but not much shelf-stable protein, including canned fish, meat, beans and peanut butter.

“Normally we’d be able to get that in a week or two,” she said. “Now some manufacturers are saying to our acquisition folks, ‘Well, we haven’t produced that yet, but we’ll put you on our list.’”

Volunteers unload a food truck before the pandemic. Harvesters has had to change how it distributes food to limit exposure to the coronavirus.

Still, the situation may be less dire locally than it is elsewhere in Missouri. Reached by phone this week, Biles said Harvesters is still receiving shipments on a daily basis.

“It’s just certain items that are delayed,” she said.

Fulton, the logistics expert, said food banks across the country are already having to get creative, and things are likely to get worse before they get better. Already 26 million people have filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic, and even before COVID-19, one in seven Americans were food insecure in a normal year.

Her advice for people who have the resources to feed their families?

“Don’t buy up all the peanut butter,” she said. “If you’re hoarding what you buy at the grocery store, it causes a demand signal to funnel more product through retail when it may be better off serving your neighbor in the hunger relief channel.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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