Tim Kean column: Food supply is a two-edged sword – The Herald Bulletin

I come from a fairly lengthy history in the retail grocery business. In this leadership role, I get asked a lot about our food supply. With the major disruption in the food supply across the country, grocery store shelves have been low or empty with quantity limit signs posted for the last three months.

We have certainly witnessed or participated in some very unusual buying decisions that still drive these conditions. Supply interruption at the manufacturing and fresh food processing level have still not subsided. More food is being eaten at home which has probably contributed to some pressure on store shelves, but also created some gluts of food supply in the pipeline with products that would normally be headed for a restaurant in a food-service bulk pack. Many are not acceptable to be switched over to supply grocery operations. Even non-food supplies are affected. Plastic cutlery already packed for fast food would not be acceptable to send through the grocery store pipeline for store shelves.

The national food bank system of operation revolves around the concept of acquiring truckloads of donated food that has been deemed unsaleable for a variety of reasons and are sitting at various locations in the food distribution channels. Some are at the farmer level, processor, manufacturer/wholesaler, distribution center and retailer. Donated product availability at all these points in the retail system have been depleted or eliminated. The food service (restaurants and schools) system has been backlogged with products because of all the restaurant and school closures.

So where does all that leave us? Food donations are all but dried up. Food purchasing on the open market has very limited availability. The USDA has increased purchasing from producers to send us additional nonperishable food that have been slow to arrive. They also have started a new program by contracting with perishable food suppliers for milk, dairy, produce and meat. We have been receiving these items for almost a month and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

As with most circumstances, this is a two-edged sword. We are now using a small fleet of borrowed/rented storage trailers on our lot to hold all the additional perishable food supply, and our non-refrigerated warehouse racking system is sitting mostly empty. I doubt that this will change much for a lengthy period of time, and we may have crossed over to the new long-term reality that has been forecast by Feeding America for many years. The forecast is that donated non-refrigerated food will continue to decrease in availability and refrigerated food will continue to increase. An expansion of our cooler/freezer has got to move forward for a long-term solution.

We’re seeing record level needs in all the eight counties that we serve and have responded by getting more than twice as much food distributed over last year in our programs and through our agency partners. We are expanding our focus in addressing local food deserts by implementing a new partnership with 12 local volunteer groups called our Neighborhood Van initiative. We have also announced an expansion of our Senior Safety Net by six sites to address senior hunger by partnering with LifeStream Services and Glick Properties. We are continuing to see increased numbers of families through The Big Idea school initiative in April and May that have dipped slightly in June with extra EBT benefits, but should jump back up again in July as those benefits expire.

Highly nutritious perishable food is where we see our inventory currently and for the foreseeable future with its two-edged sword of benefits and challenges. We thank you for your kind words of encouragement and financial support to keep it all moving.

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