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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Pandemic Pressures Charitable Supply Chains

Midwest Food Bank
Eric Stock
The Midwest Food Bank worked with 2,000 organizations last year in eight regions and three countries.

The coronavirus pandemic has taught many people a lesson in supply chain economics, not least of all the Midwest Food Bank.

The 17-year-old not-for-profit organization is not small. It distributed $280 million worth of food in Indiana, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Haiti, and Kenya to more than 2,000 agencies last year, said Jada Hoerr, development and relations director for the Midwest Food Bank. And that scale of operation has a long tail the virus threatened to disrupt.

“In the early weeks there was a significant demand going to grocery stores, so some of the food we would typically retrieve from food manufacturers was on a more limited supply,” said Hoerr.

There are at least two levels of sourcing for the food bank: the purely local that stays local, and food from manufacturers of less perishable items that can be shipped longer distances before distribution.

Manufacturers, Hoerr said, give to the food bank when there are errors in labeling, packaging or production; things like the wrong dye used to produce the box for the food. With increased demand at grocery stores, manufacturers became less picky about product appearance and sent it on for sale rather than setting it aside for donation. Hoerr said the food bank had to broaden its network and make new donor contacts to make up for that dropoff.

At the local level, grocery stores also tend to donate food items that are nearing expiration. With more people shopping, she said there was less of that in the early part of the pandemic and the organization again broadened its sweep to compensate.

“We also received some generous gifts from local restaurants and cafeterias at large businesses or universities. We were able to get some produce and perishable goods from those organizations as well,” said Hoerr.

Social distancing required during stay-at-home orders also has forced the Midwest Food Bank to change its operation. The effort has traditionally depended on big numbers of volunteers to load and package the bulk lots into smaller parcels for shipment to individual food pantries and other distributors.

“We distribute our food with less human contact. So we are grateful for those volunteers that are still able to come,” said Hoerr.

Another complication: Those helpers also must follow new safety rules. In some facilities, she said National Guard soldiers are helping instead of volunteers.

Need has increased as unemployment has jumped. Hoerr said more people are coming to food pantries, adding that fewer pantries are operating because they haven't had the volunteer staff to package food to give out in a low- or no-contact way.

“What we have seen is a very dynamic scenario,” said Hoerr.

Some pantries are now reopening and some have some parts of programs open and other parts closed, she said.

“And some of the lines of dispersal have been disrupted. Some families depend on schools for food supply or the weekend supply for their kids and those options have been disrupted,” said Hoerr. “There have been large efforts in many communities to get the kids fed, but we know that some families are falling through the cracks and they are living on the margins, so that the alternate options are not as conducive to get the kids the food.”

Midwest Food Bank has compensated for the rapid shocks to the food network, but Hoerr said different challenges loom.

“We have reached a new norm. We were agile and were able to put a new plan in place and we have found some stability in the way we are doing our work now,” said Hoerr. “We anticipate the really challenging scenario to be prolonged for months and perhaps a year that unemployment will be significant and the number of families that will depend on the emergency food system.”

Before the pandemic, one in nine families across the U.S. were food insecure. She said that is expected to grow by 35% because of unemployment in the aftermath of the virus. Hoerr said that is modeled after the rates experienced in the Great Recession.

“I think it’s very possible that is understating it for the next few months. We’ll just have to see how quickly the economy comes back. Certainly, it’s a crisis in the near term,” said Hoerr.

Unemployment applications last month were three times higher than at the peak of the Great Recession.

Hoerr, who was on the program Freakonomics Radio on April 11, said the organization’s ability to quickly change ground is a lesson in supply chain economics.

“It reinforces what we have always known. It is not a supply challenge; it is a distribution challenge. And so, we are thankful we can stand in the gap,” said Hoerr.

Before the pandemic, experts estimated 50% of the dollars spent on food in the U.S. was at restaurants or outside the home, though it was only 35-40% of the food.

“Obviously that has drastically shifted and so it is taking a while for the supply chain to make that shift, said Hoerr.

Another estimate is that the U.S. wastes 40% of the food produced. She said the Midwest Food Bank wants to target that for distribution to people who need it.

She said they anticipate people at home now have fuller pantries and it is not wasted now, but there could be some waste involved in consumer consumption patterns.

“Because of higher unemployment we know that there are individuals that for the first time in their lives they find themselves in a food insecure state,” said Hoerr. “It’s an opportunity for all of us to show dignity and compassion to those individuals and go back to some of our early lessons in life and work out how to share.”

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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