(Reuters) Food banks nationwide are squeezed between short supplies and surging demand from needy families as the coronavirus pandemic has put more than 26 million Americans out of work. In New York City, the mayor appointed a food czar as lines of masked people form outside overstretched charities. More than a third of the city’s food banks have closed for lack of supplies, donations or volunteers, who are harder to recruit because of infection fears, according to the New York Mission Society. In San Diego, a local food bank waits on a $1 million order it placed weeks ago. Chicago and Houston food banks say they are nearly out of staples.
Before the pandemic, 1 in 7 Americans relied on food banks, according to Feeding America, a national network of the charities. Now, demand has doubled or tripled at many organizations, U.S. food bank operators told Reuters.
And yet farmers are destroying produce, dumping milk and culling livestock because the pandemic has upended supply chains, making it impossible for many to get crops to market. Grocery stores struggle to stock shelves because suppliers can’t adjust to the sudden shift of demand away from shuttered restaurants to retailers, which requires different packaging and distribution networks.
“The U.S. likely has a surplus of food right now,” said Keith Dailey, group vice president of corporate affairs at Kroger Co, the No. 1 U.S. supermarket operator. “It’s just hard to recover and redistribute.”
Before the pandemic, Feeding America member organizations received about a third of their food from grocery store programs that “rescue” fresh food and dry goods that are imperfect or close to expiration. Almost a quarter came from government programs that provide meat, cheese and other products. The rest came through donations from farmers and grocers and purchases by the food banks.
Now those supply lines are disrupted. Panic-buying of groceries stripped store inventories of often-donated surplus items, causing grocers to shift to cash donations for food banks. Surging demand from needy families, along with higher prices on some products, is busting food banks’ cash budgets – one Nebraska food bank, for instance, will spend up to $1 million on food in April compared to about $70,000 in a normal month.