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Some food banks — but not all — hurt by pandemic-related supply issues

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

Photos by Mark White, Dignity City

Nourish Pierce County Volunteer Paul Slama loads food on to a truck at the Emergency Food Network (EFN). Nourish has 23 food banks in Pierce County and is supplied by EFN.

By Jon Williams

Dignity City Editor

When the pandemic forced factories in Asia, Europe and North America to slow or stop production, and an increase in demand for durable goods caused maritime traffic jams that continue to snarl U.S. ports, the complex global supply web unraveled.

We’ve witnessed how quickly a local virus outbreak can become a pandemic. Conversely, we’ve learned how quickly breaks in the world supply chain affect us locally.

Thankfully, the days of pandemic-driven panic buying are over and toilet paper is once again widely available, but if you’re in the market for chicken tenders, you might run into trouble.

When staffing shortages and supply chain issues make some items harder to find, many of us can simply make different choices. For those who supply the Pierce County food pantries, however, hard-to-find items are more of a problem.

Michelle Douglas is the chief executive officer of the Emergency Food Network (EFN), which distributes millions of pounds of food to more than 70 food pantries, meal sites, shelters and people in need in Pierce County.

Lately, Douglas is having a hard time getting oats.

“I have to call multiple vendors to get a truckload of oats. Orders are precarious,” said Douglas. “For instance, there’s drought in Canada, which is raising the price of oats by 70 cents per bag. We go through a truckload every quarter. There are much higher shipping costs, as well.”

You can’t blame a drought on the pandemic, but certainly we can pin shipping and staff shortages on the past two years of COVID spikes and lockdowns.

“There’s a big problem between supply and demand,” said Douglas. “The U.S. is 80,000 drivers short. So, there are not enough drivers. And we can’t compete with someone like Sysco. So it’s really challenging for nonprofits to keep up in the labor market.”

The pandemic has affected food pantries in Washington state unevenly. Jefferson County Food Banks provides food and hygiene supplies to about 8,000 people every month at locations in Port Townsend, Quilcene, Port Hadlock and Brinnon. Shirley Moss manages the Port Townsend Food Bank. “We’re not experiencing any shortages,” said Moss. “I keep seeing this in the news and I can’t say it’s affected us.”

According to Moss, who has worked at the food bank since 1997, demand for their services has actually fallen. “That’s been going on throughout the whole pandemic,” she said. “All four food banks in Jefferson County are having fewer visitors.

“All of us have been down on our numbers,” said Moss. Pre-pandemic, the Port Townsend Food Bank would serve 220 families on a slow week. This year, “Thanksgiving was our busiest week so far with 197 families. We’re still nowhere close to what we were pre-pandemic.”

Moss believes that’s because more federal dollars are flowing into Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards. The extra money allows people who are on food assistance in Washington a greater ability to shop for themselves at grocery stores, rather than getting supplies at food banks.

Indeed, there has been a 15 percent increase in basic food allotment dollars, which began in January and started showing up in individual accounts in February. The increase, approved by Congress, lasted through September, according to Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services.

EFN’s Douglas said federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, (CARES Act) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) are a big help. But more money doesn’t always solve problems.

“So, we’re getting federal dollars and we’re using it to buy more food than normal, but operating costs are through the roof. We lost 60 percent of our volunteers overnight — most volunteers are in high-risk categories (for COVID). Social distancing with volunteers is hard to do. You’d laugh if you saw what we are doing with this,” Douglas said.

Unlike Jefferson County, Pierce County is seeing a dramatic rise in demand and facing difficult logistics because of the pandemic, according to Douglas.

“Pierce Transit can’t hire enough drivers,” she said. “So they’re cutting bus routes. People who use the food banks are reliant on buses. We have people with COVID who are in quarantine. It’s all making it impossible to do service as it once was.”

According to Douglas, resolving these issues might take awhile. “We’re going to be impatient with how long it takes,” she said, “because rental costs are rising in Pierce County and wages aren’t. Everybody’s buying power isn’t keeping up. Now, more people are going to have to turn to emergency food systems. That’s what I predict.”

If demand in Pierce County increases as she predicts, how will she accommodate that increase?

“We grow product here but we don’t have the ability to stabilize it,” said Douglas. We’re going to have to look at spreading resources around in different ways.” More reliance on locally grown food, for example, would decrease problems with shipping.

“We have to get smarter about how we’re growing food and where we’re turning it into a shelf-stable product. It’s not surprising we’re in crisis. It doesn’t take much disruption to tip the system,” she said. “And, the average person doesn’t think about: 'How is my food coming?'”

Meanwhile, there are still provisions at food pantries. But pandemic-sickened supply lines, spiraling costs and the increased need that Douglas envisions seem to be brewing a perfect storm in Pierce County.

In the small Kitsap County community of Poulsbo, Fishline Food Bank Executive Director Lori Maxim was swamped with work before the Thanksgiving holiday. “We have an abundance of food stored in our annex and are giving out 4-5 bags of groceries to our clients each week,” she wrote in an email.

In the true spirit of her work, Maxim ended by writing: “Please give my information to any food banks having shortages. I will see what we can do to help.”

Photo by Mark White, Dignity City

Home Delivery Program Coordinator Marissa Lewis bags supplies at the Emergency Food Network in Tacoma. EFN provides million pounds of food annually to more than 70 food pantries and shelters in Pierce County.

Photo by Mark White, Dignity City

Emergency Food Network Warehouse Coordinator Dan Hunter drives a forklift loaded with lettuce to a Nourish Pierce County truck. Hunter has worked at EFN for 18 years.


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