The supply chain challenges have affected almost everyone, but perhaps no one more than those who are already struggling.
The shortages most Mainers are currently facing at the grocery store are the same ones that food pantries confront as they try to serve people in need, because many food pantries receive donations from grocery store surplus, Andy Matthews, president of the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in Ellsworth, said.
“There may not be as much as we like available or the types of things that we need available,” Matthews said. “It changes, just like it changes at the grocery store. We have been forced to buy a lot of what we need retail.”
Food pantries across the state of Maine have seen the trickle-down effects of the supply chain shortage on their available stock and donations. With canned goods, meat and other typical staples in short supply, they are adapting as best they can through retail purchases and offering grocery gift cards as they prepare for the upcoming holiday season.
Over the course of the pandemic, food pantries have struggled to keep up with the increased demand as unemployment soared in 2020 and the beginning of 2021.
The issues food pantries are facing right now are slightly different. At the beginning of the pandemic, Matthews said her food pantry saw more first-time clients seeking help. Despite the increased demand, the food pantry received more goods because people weren’t out shopping due to the stay at home orders.
Now, between the supply chain challenges and the bumper tourism season that cleaned many grocery stores out of their usual staples, Matthews said that inventory is especially squeezed. The shortages have been unpredictable as multiple factors from processing plant closures to aluminum shortages determine what is available on the shelves.
“It seems to cycle a little bit,” Matthews said. “We certainly are getting fewer meats, but some of that has been going on for quite some time, especially pandemic related, [like] when poultry plants were shut down all over the country, but they haven’t quite recovered.”
Rita Worster has noticed the quantity of food declining from grocery store pickups as well.
“A typical Monday we pick up at Hannaford and Walmart — usually we get about 1,500 pounds of food,” Worster, the director of the Bangor Ecumenical Food Cupboard, said. “Lately we have been getting only around 800 [pounds], so this significantly impacts what we have available for our customers.”
Supply chain shortages are being felt at food pantry partners beyond grocery stores, such as the Good Shepherd Food Bank, Matthews said.
“We purchase our food through them but they’ve been affected through those supply chains as well,” she said.
The supply chain shortages and rising cost of food have stunted the flow of donations to food pantries.
“People’s grocery bills are bigger, and when they’re looking to purchase food that they might donate to us, those individuals are facing limitations as well in terms of what they can give,” Matthews said.
Food pantries are handling the supply chain shortages differently. Some anticipated the supply challenges and stocked up earlier in the year.
“We anticipated a reduction in food and in the summer began stocking up on what we could,” said Rich Romero, co-manager at the Brewer Food Cupboard. “We do see items now that are difficult to obtain, such as tomatoes and canned vegetables, at least at pricing affordable for a food pantry that relies on donations to operate.”
Some have been adapting in creative ways, too. Romero said that, as always, the Brewer Food Cupboard will be offering alternatives to popular staples in hopes that clients can be flexible. Matthews said that Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry plans to provide $25 grocery store gift cards to food bank clients so they can shop for what they need this holiday season.
With winter approaching, food pantries are trying to prepare for more customers in need during the colder months.
“Even in a normal year people have to make the choice between heating their home and buying their food and that’s not a decision that anyone should have to make,” Matthews said. “In November, we’ve seen [demand] increase [compared with] the last few months.”
Matthews said that donors can do a lot to help in this moment of need. Instead of scouring the grocery shelves for canned goods, she urged donors to consider monetary donations, particularly because they are able to purchase food from Good Shepherd Food Bank at a significantly reduced cost.
Another great way to help if you are low on financial resources is to donate your time.
“We’re a complete volunteer-based organization, as most food pantries are, and we’re looking for volunteers to help us during these difficult times,” Matthews said. “We’re all in this together. Hunger is not going away any time soon.”