Food banks at mercy of weather, politics, supermarket savvy

Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry employees Jon White  (left) and Jim Bularzik (right) discuss the placement of two pallets of frozen chicken legs that were part of a large U.S.D.A. food delivery from the St. Louis Area Foodbank on Tuesday afternoon. Photo: Mike Sherwin

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Why do food pantries often run out of vegetables, meat and cheese for their hungry clients?

That simple question has a complex answer.

Tempting though it may be to blame Congress and congressionally mandated cuts to SNAP – the federal food stamp program – the reasons the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry and others in the St. Louis area sometimes find their shelves bare include the uncertain economy, swings in the weather from drought to severe freezes, federal procurement programs, even the way supermarkets today stock their shelves to avoid much surplus.

“Now that we have bar codes, supermarkets can keep track of their sales,” said Frank Finnegan, head of the St. Louis Area Foodbank, which is located in a sprawling, 100,000-square-foot warehouse in Earth City. “Supermarkets share that information with the manufacturers. There is much closer inventory control.”

Another way to explain the situation is this comment from one official in the supply chain for needy families: “The best stores for us to go to to pick up food they want to get rid of are those that are poorly managed in meat, dairy and produce.”

If a store overstocks on perishables, it has to get rid of that unsold food somehow. An alert food pantry will be ready to take that food and put it on its shelves and in its coolers to be handed out to hungry families.

At any time, no one in the complicated endeavor of providing food for needy families knows what’s coming next, when or in what quantities.

“Last month, we had lots of apple juice,” said Marcia Mermelstein, Kornblum pantry’s coordinator. “Some months, all we get are carrots. Sometimes we have chicken, catfish and lamb chops. There’s no real rhyme or reason. People were tickled because we had catfish. They were tired of chicken.

“The end of December and into January, we were giving away egg nog because the supermarkets had overstocked.” 

Economic conundrum: Demand overwhelms supply

At the Kornblum food pantry, the demand is outstripping the supply of food from various sources, which include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Operation Food Search, surpluses at Produce Row in the city, and supermarket chains, large bakeries and food drives by synagogues and other groups.

For instance, in September, the food pantry served 5,700 family members. Two months later, that number had soared to 8,099, a 42 percent jump.

Last month, the pantry provided food for 7,237 family members. No one knows what the new normal is, but when the food pantry moved to its present location at 10601 Baur Boulevard in late 2012, its managers wanted space to serve 10,000 people a month.

Back then, they were expecting about 5,000 a month. Recent demand from  unemployed or working-poor clients has pushed that number much higher.

When the food pantry opened more than 20 years ago, it fed 150 people a month. The pantry is believed to be the biggest in the St. Louis area and serves primarily people from St. Louis and St. Louis County.

At the same time, the number of needy clients keeps rising, the supply of food from the St. Louis Area Foodbank, which in turn distributes its U.S.D.A. food to Kornblum and many other area food banks, can fluctuate greatly.

It all depends upon several variables – and managers at the food bank have to stay on top of the available food from many sources, much like commodity brokers closely watch fluctuations in supplies, the weather, and the availability of trucks and trains to haul food.

Some months, the food bank sends about 20,000 pounds of U.S.D.A. food to the Kornblum food pantry. In July, though, the pantry got 57,000 pounds, said Cory Eichorn, pantry manager. But that was an unusually bountiful supply compared with the usual flow, which arrives by pantry trucks during the third week of the month. 

Meanwhile, the need to provide food has continued to rise steadily, regardless of what U.S.D.A. provides through the food bank in Earth City. The Kornblum food pantry must make up the difference by routinely visiting supermarkets and other food outlets. Or it may have to turn clients and potential clients away.

Eichorn credits Greg Youngstrom, a longtime driver who has built up valuable relationships with the right employees in many area supermarkets and stores.

“We are there on a timely basis,” Eichorn said. “We are on time. We kick butt. Having a paid driver [as opposed to volunteers] is worth its weight in gold.”

He said the Kornblum food pantry budgets about $6,750 a month to buy food from retail and other sources. His buyers shop carefully.

“We buy at wholesale whenever possible,” he said. “We go to Aldi’s or Save-a-Lot to get peanut butter and tuna fish. It’s the same as in the supermarkets and quite a bit cheaper. We’re looking for shelf-stable food.”

Weathering the weather

Some years, farm commodities such as rice and corn are abundant because those are good crop years. That’s when the Agriculture Department steps in to buy surpluses to help keep prices up so farmers can make a living.

Other years, a drought or crop failure may cause lower yields of those crops – and U.S.D.A. has fewer of those crops to distribute to repositories such as the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

A severe drought in California, the nation’s largest agricultural state, is sure to have sharply affect what food pantries have on their shelves and in their coolers, as well as supermarket prices for fruit and vegetables, in the months ahead.

Another reason for an erratic supply of food, says Marjorie Sawicki, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at St. Louis University, is the complex logistics of hauling surpluses, be it grain commodities or frozen meat or dairy products, from their point of origin or processing to food bank warehouses located all across the United States.

“Sometimes, unreliable deliveries mean that food banks and food pantries cannot get fresh food, meats and things like that,” Sawicki said. “They have to rely on contractors to provide trucks for distributing the food.”

Much of the food the food banks receive comes from the Department of Agriculture’s procurement programs for needy people, which just about everyone agrees is an acceptable system – except when there are shortages on the supply side.

“U.S.D.A. actually gives the food banks the best price it can, about one third lower than the market price, but it’s dealing with the uncertainty of all kinds of things,” Sawicki said.

Food banks are large warehouses where government-purchased foods, as well as donated foods from drives like those conducted by the Boy Scouts, end up. There, volunteers sort them, box them according to type – canned green beans in one large box, macaroni and cheese in another – for storage. Finnegan said about 20,000 volunteers a year descend on the warehouse to help sort food from many sources.

Then workers fill orders for food pantries, stacking canned and boxed goods on pallets, and cover them with shrink wrap to be sent out to food pantries throughout the area. Those in need then visit, usually by appointment, for their supply of things to eat.

Movement against government help

Yet another question remains: Why do so many people in this country – some estimates put the number at 50 million, or 16 percent of the country’s population of 310 million – not have enough of the right kind of food to eat?

“We have hungry people in this country because we don’t have the will to end it,” said Finnegan, of the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

Courtney McDermott, a lecturer in the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ school of social work, teaches a course on the history of American social welfare policies.

“The last few decades, the government has been getting away from helping the needy,” she said. “There is the belief that the federal government should do less and private charities should be making the donations.”

In good economic times, she said, when many people hold steady, paying jobs, the emphasis has been on personal responsibility. And when there have been economic downturns, the federal government would step in, providing a safety net of food for need people.

“But now the political attitude is against government help,” McDermott said. “You can see that in the cuts to SNAP,” the food stamp program that was cut by $8 billion in the recently passed five-year farm bill.

Echoing what Finnegan and others have told the Light, McDermott said: “The reality is that the majority of people are working more than 40 hours [a week], and they still can’t make it.”