By Matt Reese
Those who know can hear the difference.
The sound of open space echoing around the vast storage facility of the Mid-Ohio Food Collective in Grove City is a growing concern. Heading into the high-demand summer season, supplies were at 25% capacity.
At a time when food is needed most, it is in increasingly shorter supply at food banks around Ohio, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
“Food scarcity and hunger rates are now elevated above the height of the pandemic, which is hard to believe, but there are many reasons for that. We’re seeing our job market recover, but wages continue to be stagnant in the lower sectors — like the service sector — of the economy,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “We are seeing shortages that are exacerbated by the supply chain issues. This is not just in the grocery store — it is all of the inputs that need to go into food production of everything from livestock to additives or the packaging. And now we are looking at these diesel prices and other increasing costs. Unfortunately, the sources of food we have depended upon in the past have fallen off significantly. Donations are down, including retail donations, because retailers cannot acquire the food they need to ensure their shelves are restocked for their customers. I’ve got vendors who say they have never seen it as bad as it is. We are seeing higher demand at a time when we are seeing declines in retail donations, industry donations from food manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers, and then the USDA food systems are so hurt by the supply chains that USDA has been cancelling loads. Through May in 2022, Ohio food banks have seen the cancelation of over 250 semi-trailer loads of USDA commodities that are the mainstay — the center of the plate items we desperately depend on. They are saying they can’t find suppliers to meet the bid requirements. I have been doing this for 25 years and I have never seen the amount of mass cancelations through USDA.”
There are no easy solutions to the broad set of challenges converging on the food supply chain.
“Everything is driving the situation. So much of what we do now is global. Products are often being shipped overseas for processing and then shipped back. We still have containers that are stuck at ports that cannot get back in for processing. We have glass and aluminum shortages, labor shortages. Farmers will not over produce food with the input costs and uncertainty with extreme weather conditions too. There are challenges across the board with everything at a time where more households are turning to food banks more frequently because their limited budgets just can’t stretch with food costs going as high as they are right now. For Americans who have taken for granted a low-cost healthy, wholesome source of readily abundant food, we are being challenged by all of the things that many people throughout the globe are challenged with,” she said. “Really for the first time, it is whoever has the most money wins in this situation. If we have competition for a dwindling commodity like canned green beans, and food manufacturers and retailers buy everything they’ve got, then USDA does not have an opportunity to buy them. The other thing is the formulation of food. USDA is trying to buy food lower in sodium and sugar and those items are really in demand. When USDA goes out to bid on these items, sometimes 6 to 9 months in advance, we plan our distribution based on the amount we are going to get. And we have also always had something in surplus from our retail donors, but because the supply chain is stretched to the breaking point we do not. I have said the supply chain was brittle, but I have now moved on to say it is completely broken down.”
Inflation is increasing the challenges.
“Budgets have been stretched to the breaking point. Food is the most fungible portion of anyone’s budget. You have to pay rent, utilities, child care, you have to pay for gas to get to work. We are seeing families turning to us when their budget can’t stretch any further and they are having to sacrifice what they are spending on food. The landscape of hunger and food scarcity continues to climb. We have also seen rapidly rising rents for many families,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “During the pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau conducted the Household Pulse Survey where they studied households around the U.S. with the tradeoffs they were making with job losses, disruptions, and scarcity. Late last year we started to see need leveling off after 3 stimulus payments that had been made and the expansion of the child tax credit. At the end of December those advance, monthly tax credit payments ended and families with children ran out of money. The most recent poll survey found that 1 in 10 Ohio households did not have enough to eat in the previous 7 days in their household. That is scary. And 1.8 million children in the state of Ohio rely on free and reduced-price meals at schools. In the summer, only about 200,000 of those children will be able to access a replacement, maybe a lunch instead of both breakfast and lunch in school. The demand skyrockets on our system in the summer and we are at a time when we are seeing record low inventories.
“The first line defense against hunger is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, many people know as the food stamp program. SNAP has benefitted from the maximum allotment during the pandemic and due to the end of the public health emergency we are going to see a huge drop for 700,000 SNAP households with 1.5 million Ohioans. They will see on average their monthly SNAP benefit decline $80 per person per month at a time when food costs are going up. The poorest of the poor are going to be without those school meal programs. We are anticipating a long, hot summer of need.”
While the situation is serious, Ohio does have some food advantages, in part due to a robust, and generous, agricultural sector.
“We are very fortunate in Ohio. We developed the Ohio Agricultural Clearance Program more than 20 years ago. It was supported at the time by Gov. George Voinovich and every governor since that time. It is funded through the Ohio General Assembly through the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. It allows us to work with a core group of about 50 farmers, growers, and commodity producers to clear their surplus or unmarketable ag products, including fruits and vegetables. I call them the cosmetically challenged fruits and vegetables — less than grade A. Then we moved into the protein area maybe 15 years ago,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “We can take these dollars and pay a portion of the farmer’s picking, packing, processing, or production cost to go ahead and harvest those fruits and vegetables that have no market value. Then they are packed up and shipped directly to our food banks. Last year that provided over 35 million pounds of some of the most wholesome food we had available. It is generally fresher than what you could even find in the grocery store. Farmers have always been a part of the partnership that helps us address food insecurity. Farmers grow food to feed people and they do not want to see food wasted. The government provides the funding, we work with the producers and we’re feeding our hungry friends and neighbors. It is a real win-win-win.”
Hamler-Fugitt is pushing for expansion of the Ohio Agricultural Clearance Program to help meet more future food need in Ohio.
“Every year we have had that program we have run out of money before we ran out of food being offered. We’d like to expand the program as well to new and emerging farmers,” she said. “We would like to move it from a market clearing program to an actual purchase program. That would require additional appropriations. We are always looking for new suppliers who have some surplus we could direct to a local food pantry or soup kitchen.”
For more, visit ohiofoodbanks.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.