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South Carolina food banks, the global supply chain shortage, and pie filling

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Scott Morgan
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South Carolina Public Radio
Iron City Ministries in Blacksburg is part thrift shop, part food pantry. Like other agencies that help feed the hungry, supply chain backups are digging into its bottom line and sending staff and volunteers to more stores more frequently just to keep up.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not short on ironies.

It might be the worst public health crisis in a century, but it’s also lain bare how shaky is the balance beam we all walk between financial stability and sudden food insecurity.

Erinn Rowe, CEO of Harvest Hope Food Bank in Columbia, will take this as a win. She likes to find silver linings, and if one of COVID’s side effects is our collective epiphany of just how nuanced the issues of hunger and food insecurity really are, she’s willing to grab onto it.

Harvest Hope’s Columbia location is one of three. It’s a huge space, bustling with volunteers and staff, packing and unpacking, shifting and shuffling, and navigating neck-breakingly tall shelves of dry goods, packaged meals, and prepared boxes of food. And this site isn’t even the largest of the three. The one in Florence is about this size; the one in Greenville is twice as big. And this one already looks like an airplane hangar iside.

For as much food as is on these shelves and in these refrigerators, it’s a lot less than it used to be. This place, and other food banks, this scale or smaller, are a far step along the global supply chain. They come right after large-outlet stores like Walmart and Costco and Publix, from which Harvest Hope used to get whole 18-wheelers full of donated food to distribute to its many partner agencies.

But those outlets are not getting large shipments of food right now, which means the 18-wheelers – even the pallets – aren’t showing up at Harvest Hope anymore. The “trickle down effect,” says Rowe, is that staff and volunteers need to go to go get what they can in order to offset the downturn in available and donated groceries.

Rowe says Harvest Hope is short about 5 million pounds of food from where it should be by this point in the year. And if she wants you to take anything from that, it’s that food banks like hers are being much more intentional with what they’re asking for. They don’t need any more cans of expired peas or boxes of pie filling. They need nutrition dense non-perishables like peanut butter, dry beans and rice, and whole grain pastas.

On a smaller scale, Iron City Ministries, a small thrift shop and food pantry operating in a Main Street storefront in Blacksburg, Cherokee County, has to deal with the same issues. Executive Director Melissa Green says she and her staff and volunteers used to be able to stock up on as much as six weeks worth of groceries for the pantry from one big shopping trip to one big store.

Now, with that store unable to provide that level of food to one customer, Green says the staff needs to make more trips to more locations for less groceries that cost more money. What used to run Iron City Ministries $3,000 to $4,000 for that six-week run now can run it up to $5,000 for one month.

There are a few encouraging developments, however. Both Rowe and Green say their volunteer staffs and citizen donors have stepped up big time; Green is not seeing an increased demand in customers (which she attributes partly to smaller food drives through partner agencies), and Rowe says online food drives are bringing in more actual money.

Of course, money can’t buy food that is not on the store shelves.

It can, however, offset the increased costs of operating a place the size and scale of Harvest Hope. It’s expensive to fuel transport trucks, buy supplies, and manage the overhead. It’s also expensive to throw out those expired cans of peas and boxes of pie filling because a food bank can’t distribute food so far past its expiry.

But if there is another silver lining about the pandemic for Rowe to grasp onto, it’s that it seems to have taught us how to adapt and improvise. Food banks are doing more without having more, she says; learning to juggle on the fly. So far, it seems to be working.

No one, not Rowe, not Green, and not Susan Dolphin, the acting executive director of HOPE in Lancaster, expects (or even wants) any kind of “normal” again. For these agencies, what was normal before the pandemic was already a problem; Dolphin finds the very fantasy of normalcy to be ridiculous and urges us all to strike the word from our vocabularies.

What these agencies hope will replace normal is a better understanding of the complexities of food insecurity and the need for greater compassion. So far, they all say it seems to be working.

But the pandemic is not short on surprises any more than it’s short on ironies.

Below are links to food banks in South Carolina.

Mentioned in this story:

Harvest Hope

Iron City Ministries

HOPE in Lancaster

To find agencies in your city in South Carolina, click here for FoodPantries.org