Econ 919 — Heading into its busiest season, food bank feels the supply chain squeeze
The pantry and freezer at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank are filled with granola bars and apple sauce and ground meat.
But there isn't as much Thanksgiving food as you’d expect just two weeks ahead of the holiday.
“This is how short we are — I have hidden stuff for our Thanksgiving in my office," said Food Bank Executive Director Greg Meyer, pointing to a shopping cart containing boxes of stuffing and containers of crispy onions.
He said some quintessential Thanksgiving sides could be left off the food bank’s menu this year if it doesn't get more in. And right now, they're missing some fall favorites.
“Our biggest needs right now are gravy mix, instant potatoes, stovetop stuffing, canned yams, canned cranberries and canned pumpkin," Meyer said.
The shortage is a symptom of the global supply chain issues affecting everything from cars to cans, catalyzed by the pandemic.
Those issues are especially impacting agencies that rely on donated goods, like food banks and aid organizations.
While the food bank buys its own staples, it relies on donations from holiday drives for its holiday foods. And as items are becoming scarcer or taking longer to get to store shelves, people are less likely to donate them.
Cans in particular have been impacted by tin shortages. Same goes for disposable containers and water bottles, due to problems with plastic.
But those patterns aren’t always predictable.
“We just keep encountering these strange things," Meyer said. "We finally got sugar. Sugar, flour and rice were really hard for about two months. And egg noodles was another one that was really hard to get.”
That has had an effect on the food boxes families pick from the bank.
“It isn’t that we don’t get food, but we don’t know what we’re getting," Meyer said. "So we tell them what we’d like, but we get what they have. So we try to put together things based on the best we can.”
Stephen Lamm is the chef at the food bank. He’s had to get creative with his meals, depending on what’s available.
“Greg’s been pretty good at trying to keep us stocked up for when times like this arise, which is pretty good," he said. "But we can definitely see the flow of goods in and out has been decreased significantly as of late.”
At the same time, the food bank has expanded its geographic footprint in the last two years. It’s bringing food to pantries as far away as Hope and Halibut Cove.
“And I think we also have been able to increase the ability of our pantries that we support in these outlying areas to do a lot more," Meyer said. "We’ve seen some of them go from 10, 12, 14 families a week to 60.”
Meyer said he can’t anticipate how the food bank will be impacted in a few months. The holiday season is its the busiest time of year.
“We were working on budgets today and just trying to look ahead and it’s really difficult to know what it is that we’ll be challenged with," he said. "But we try to keep the staples. We’ve been working really hard on peanut butter and those things that we really need. Cup of Noodles, ramen.”
Regardless of shortages, though, the food bank will have dinners to serve for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Meyer says they have not missed a meal once during the pandemic, due to the generosity of donors.
And one Thanksgiving food they’re OK on: turkeys. The food bank orders those in advance from the Food Bank of Alaska. Meyer says they’ll serve between 1,200 and 1,400 across the peninsula.
“We always can use more turkeys, but turkeys would be on the lower end of our scale right now," he said. "We want the things that fill out a dinner.”
People are wed to their Thanksgiving classics. But Meyer said the food bank is rolling with the punches.
Maybe it's time for some new Thanksgiving traditions.
“Except the green bean casserole with onions on top," Meyer said. "There’s some things you can’t bend on.”
You can find a list of ongoing food drives at kpfoodbank.org or drop food off at the bank between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.