Acquiring turkeys for charitable meals usually gets tricky a week or two before Thanksgiving. Groups wanting to offer last-minute events through Feeding Tampa Bay often have to pick a different entrée. But this year, with food prices climbing and some items hard to get, turkey scarcity reached its usual pre-holiday level weeks early, said Matt Spence, chief programs officer.
It’s not just holiday fare: Refrigerators and freezers, which Feeding Tampa Bay needs to set up new school pantries, are backlogged. Its free restaurants have had to compensate for a lack of beef, normally a surefire protein source. Lucky for them, a big donation of shrimp — usually more expensive than beef — has helped fill the void.
Kinks in the nationwide supply chain are putting additional strain on Tampa Bay’s food relief system. Food banks have to cope with price increases and must look beyond their usual sources to adapt to limited availability. Donations, especially of proteins, have declined significantly as the big businesses that usually send their excess to Feeding Tampa Bay have less to spare, Spence said. Meanwhile, those higher food costs could drive more people to need food assistance this winter.
“There’s no slack in the system,” Spence said.
The supply chain disruptions are yet another challenge for food relief agencies to stare down, more than a year and a half into a pandemic that created a prolonged hunger emergency. Though many of the families thrown into hunger early in the pandemic have recovered, some have not, and many of those who were food insecure before the pandemic still struggle to get enough to eat.
Feeding Tampa Bay is no longer coping with the 400 percent spike in need it saw in 2020, but it still feeds, on average, 30 to 40 percent more people than it did pre-pandemic, Spence said.
“I am worried,” Spence said, adding that he foresees a steady increase in people who need help as their buying power and choices at the grocery store dwindle. “Just getting the basics is far more expensive.”
The price of food increased more in September than it has in any month since early in the pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Dietary staples such as meats, poultry, fish and eggs cost 10 percent more than they did a year ago; beef alone is up more than 17 percent.
Supply chain problems have persisted since the beginning of the pandemic, and consumers have felt the repercussions before, going back to the toilet paper shortage of spring 2020. But now, especially with key foods becoming pricey or hard to find, people are noticing the “perfect storm” afflicting the supply chain, said Elaine Singleton, the director of the University of South Florida’s Monica Wooden Center for Supply Chain Management and Sustainability.
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Several factors contribute to the problem — including clogged ports, low wages and droughts — but Singleton said a nationwide shortage of truck drivers, recently pegged at 80,000 jobs by the American Trucking Associations, has posed a major obstacle. That’s especially true for food products, which have to be delivered from ports, growers or processors to distribution centers and on to stores.
Singleton faults the age of e-commerce, with its promises of low costs and speedy delivery driving overconsumption by people with money to spend. They strain the supply chain, which in turn creates its own burdens — especially on people with tighter budgets. She expects inflation to continue, along with an echo of early-pandemic hoarding.
“I’ve talked to people who have been to Costco and have their refrigerators stocked up,” she said.
But many Floridians can’t afford even a short-term food supply. In a survey that spanned mid-September to mid-October, more than one in 10 Florida adults said they hadn’t had enough to eat in the previous week, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities think tank.
Many of the people who lost jobs during the pandemic and suddenly found themselves in need of food banks for the first time have since reentered the workforce and regained stability, said Christine Long, the chief programs officer of Metropolitan Ministries, another of the area’s largest food relief providers. She noted that federal pandemic relief programs, such as rental aid, have also helped. But she said recovery has been far slower in neighborhoods with high poverty rates.
“They were frontline workers, they lost their jobs first, they’re the last ones to regain a lot of employment, and the struggles that happened during the pandemic have continued on unabated in these neighborhoods,” Long said.
Metropolitan Ministries distributes 2,500 food boxes per week in areas identified as the hardest hit, but over the past month, the community partners who hand out those packages have asked for more, said Erin Dinsmore, the organization’s community outreach director. Climbing food prices and other factors, such as Tampa Bay’s skyrocketing rental rates, may be behind the increased demand, Long said.
“Price increases always make a huge impact on the people we serve,” Long said. “Their budgets are really, really tight, and if their food budget grows, that has a trickle-down impact on the rest of their budget.”
The supply chain squeeze comes as food relief organizations prepare for the holiday season, already an intensely busy time. Experts expect every facet of Thanksgiving cooking — from disposable roasting pans to pumpkin puree — to increase in price as the holiday approaches, according to The New York Times.
Metropolitan Ministries serves 23,000 families during a typical holiday season; last year, amid a spike in food hardship because of the pandemic, it served more than 40,000. It expects to serve as many as 33,000 this Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Spence said he hopes that the pandemic has made people realize that the food relief system is for anyone, whether they’re chronically hungry or just pushed over budget by the latest inflation. It’s set up for community support, not only emergency response, he said — even if the past year and a half has felt like one long emergency.
“We have been through it in the last two years,” he said. “A hurricane response lasts a week, maybe two. The government shutdown lasted less than a month. We’re used to responding in emergencies, but to do so for two years straight is pretty stressful.”
Correction: Overall donations to Feeding Tampa Bay have declined due to supply chain issues, but the organization said Publix, Walmart, General Mills and Tyson Foods have not reduced their donations. An earlier version of this story was incorrect due to erroneous information from Feeding Tampa Bay.