Food Bank Inventories Dwindling Rapidly Due to Increased Demand, Supplier Shortages

Local food bank directors are asking for community financial support to make sure food doesn’t run out for those in need

By Myers Reece
Kelly Hamilton loads bags of food into a car at the Flathead Food Bank on March 19, 2020. The Flathead Food Bank provides bags of food via curbside pickup only to reduce chances of transmission of novel coronavirus. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Flathead Valley food banks are placing emergency orders and asking the public to make financial contributions as food inventories dwindle rapidly due to both skyrocketing demand and people clearing shelves at grocery stores, which diminishes critical supply sources for the nonprofits.

The Flathead Food Bank and North Valley Food Bank are in danger of running out of food in the coming weeks, and food bank directors say emergency orders are limited because of wholesaler shortages. The regularly scheduled Montana Food Bank Network delivery is still over a month away.

“We’ve never served more than 40 families on a Wednesday, but yesterday we served 125,” North Valley Food Bank Executive Director Jessy Lee said on March 19. “We’re anticipating 200 families today.”

“At this rate, our food is going to run out very quickly,” she added, noting that the pantry’s major supply source other than the Montana Food Bank Network-coordinated wholesale distributions is local grocery stores, but “that has essentially dried up. They don’t have any excess.”

“If everyone goes and buys more groceries than they would normally, it puts a strain on the entire food system,” Lee continued. “We want people to know that we have food and are going to do everything in our power for that to remain true, but at the same time we’re having a hard time sourcing quantity food.”

Jamie Quinn, executive director at Flathead Food Bank, only expects demand to continue increasing.

“This is unprecedented,” Quinn said. “There’s nothing in modern history to use as a guideline. And none of us know what we’re going to wind up encountering except the reality of more layoffs and hours cut, and we’re going to be needed even more in the coming weeks.”

Residents stockpiling their home cupboards due to the coronavirus epidemic are causing the grocery store shortages, which have ripple effects for the clients that food banks serve. Many of those clients don’t have sufficient income to stockpile, and on top of that are now facing the prospects of feeding their children more frequently because of school closures, in addition to lost income — perhaps their jobs altogether — due to either employer closures or simply the need to stay at home with their kids.

“The families we serve don’t have the luxury of having a stocked pantry, so they’re starting out with nothing,” Lee said. “I’ve heard families say, ‘I went to the store and spent my food stamps to try to have enough food in case someone in my family gets sick, and now I have no money for more food.”

On March 19, Attorney General Tim Fox announced that his office is working with Montana Food Bank Network CEO Gayle Carlson and Helena Food Share Executive Director Bruce Day to “outline ways Montanans can support their local food pantries.” A press conference call is scheduled for March 20.

“Montana’s food pantries are essential to our communities, now more than ever in light of the coronavirus outbreak,” Fox’s release stated.

Lee said nutritious food has been especially hard to procure, including canned fruits and vegetables, meats and spaghetti sauce. In placing a recent emergency order, Lee said the wholesaler only had green beans and applesauce for veggies and fruit, so Lee ordered a pallet of each.

Both Flathead Food Bank and North Valley Food Bank have altered operations to ensure best social-distancing practices while still distributing food to locals in need. The food banks switched to curbside drive-through pickups outside of their facilities to avoid person-to-person contact. Quinn said clients are adjusting to the new pre-bagged model, rather than being able to choose their food in the pantry.

“It’s the best we can do at this time and really the best way to keep everyone safe,” Quinn said on March 19, the first day of her food bank’s new distribution model.

“Most of our customers are the most at-risk individuals in our community: elderly, health-compromised, children, single adults struggling to survive,” she added. “We serve the most vulnerable people in the food banks.”

The influx in demand has occurred even as school districts have continued their breakfast and lunch programs this week to ensure that students receive meals during school closures. But districts such as Kalispell and Whitefish, which have been making their meals available to all kids under 18, head to spring break next week and will not offer the meal programs over the break.

Lee is hoping the Backpack Assistance Program will help “offset that increased demand to some degree.” Quinn said her food bank worked with the HEART Locker to distribute more than 400 bags to families in the greater Kalispell area this week heading into spring break.

“We will continue to do that as long as school is out,” Quinn said.

Quinn and Lee have been communicating and coordinating regularly, as well as with other local food banks, including in Lakeshore and Bigfork. On March 19, Quinn was lining out vehicles and trailers to travel to Missoula the following day to pick up loads of food through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). It will be distributed among local food banks.

The food banks also make curbside distributions to homes around the valley, and due to the need to protect vulnerable populations such as the immune-compromised and elderly, that clientele is growing. Lee said one family in Hungry Horse that the food bank delivered to only had ramen in the house.

Quinn said Republican Rep. Frank Garner has worked with the local sheriff’s posse to secure 19 vehicles and volunteers for delivery routes. She said that effort is one of many that have reminded her of her community’s generosity even in a time of crisis.

“I don’t want to make everything so doom and gloom,” she said. “We can all attest that we are so grateful for the community we live in despite all these struggles. The community is stepping up in new and creative ways to support the issue of feeding everyone right now. We’re so grateful.”

While Quinn and Lee say food donations are always appreciated, the most helpful form of assistance right now is money so that the food banks can purchase food. Considering grocery store shortages and increased retail prices, Quinn said the Flathead Food Bank, through its wholesale sources and partners, can typically buy food that equals out to $.60 a meal.

“The reality is that right now purchasing is way better,” she said.

To make financial donations to local food banks, call their offices or visit their websites and social media. Flathead Food Bank can be reached at flatheadfoodbank.org. North Valley Food Bank’s website is northvalleyfoodbank.org.

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