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Inflation, scarce supply hit area food banks for holidays

By Fiona Kelliher

With the holiday season fast approaching, skyrocketing prices for staples like eggs, produce and meat have left Bay Area food banks struggling to secure enough food for the growing number of people who have needed help making it through the pandemic.

A combination of inflation — including higher prices for food and gas — and supply chain slowdowns have pushed prices for daily essentials up as much as 20% in the past month alone, local food banks say. Beef and chicken have become so scarce that providers must decide whether to find substitutions, pay the higher costs or go without them.

The challenges have left food banks in a vulnerable position heading into Thanksgiving and Christmas — and with no sign that the increased demand from hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents will let up in the new year.

“We’re on pins and needles going into the holiday season,” said Leslie Bacho, CEO of Second Harvest Silicon Valley. “When I see those cost increases, I worry about us and our ability to source food, but I also worry about our clients — this is yet another thing keeping them in this economic crisis.”

At the Alameda County Community Food Bank, prices for seven of its most essential items— including oatmeal, green beans, peaches, frozen chicken and tuna — have jumped between 3% and 17% in the last three months. That’s meant coming up with an extra $60,000 a month.

Food banks serving San Francisco and Marin, Contra Costa and Solano counties have reported similar cost

“I don’t have turkeys to give to families at Thanksgiving. I’m struggling if I can even give them a whole chicken. The holidays are going to be lean when it comes to protein, there’s no two ways about it.”

— Bill Lee, executive director of Martha’s Kitchen in San Jose

Volunteer William Powell, center, sorts through oranges as fellow volunteers and staffers load boxes with food into vehicles during a drive-thru food distribution event at an Alameda County Community Food Bank site in Oakland on Nov. 12.


Ana Cordero waits in her vehicle as volunteers and staffers load boxes with food for her at a drive-thru distribution site in Oakland. Beef, turkey and chicken are in short supply.

increases, including a 22% rise in the cost of eggs in recent weeks.

Everywhere, typical sources of protein are hard to procure in bulk because of widespread labor shortages and supply chain disruptions. The cost of meat, fish, poultry and eggs has soared by about 13.6% in the Bay Area since last October, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I don’t have turkeys to give to families at Thanksgiving. I’m struggling if I can even give them a whole chicken,” said Bill Lee, executive director of Martha’s Kitchen in San Jose. “The holidays are going to be lean when it comes to protein, there’s no two ways about it.” The higher prices and scarcity arrive as local food banks grapple with how to maintain services that they expanded during the pandemic. Food banks nationwide distributed about 50% more food last year than in 2019 as widespread job loss caused thousands of people to frequent food pantries for thefirst time. Inthe first few months of 2020, more than 4 million Californians applied for unemployment.

The effects were especially acute in the Bay Area, which has the highest income inequality in the state. Second Harvest said it has seen the number of clients double. The Alameda County Community Food Bank distributes roughly 70% more meals than it did prior to the pandemic, and the SF-Marin Food Bank serves about 56% more people weekly.

Purchasing teams have started ordering scarce items more than three months in advance, substituting cheaper food, relying on spot deals and sometimes simply eating the cost increases.

“We don’thave the luxury to say, ‘Well, our shelves are bare,’” said Michael Altfest, director of community engagement with the Alameda County Community Food Bank. “Our focus on resourcefulness has shifted to doing what it takes to get the food.”

The challenges translate directly to the amount — and types — of food clients receive.

“We used to have packaged meat, like chicken, and I haven’t seen that in a little while, maybe a month or so,” said Linda Ramey, an 80-year-old former librarian who volunteers at the SF-Marin Food Bank’s San Francisco warehouse.

“There should be more because it’s Thanksgiving — but it’s whatever comes in,” Ramey added.

Clients notice, too, but it doesn’t stop them from coming back. As dozens of cars snaked their way through the parking lot at the Alameda County bank’s drive-thru food giveaway Friday morning, volunteers loaded up trunks with peppers, onions and oranges, and canned goods. An order of cabbage hadn’t come through, forcing them to dip into onion supplies. A sign next to the canned goods read “no arroz”— no rice.

East Oakland resident Willie Davis, 74, picks up food at the drive-thru weekly for four families on his block. The offerings differ week to week but his neighbors’ faces light up regardless of the boxes’ contents, he said. “Maybe there’s a problem, but it doesn’t really appear that way to us,” he said of supply chain slowdowns. “It’s a godsend that these guys are doing this.”

Hoping to get ahead of holiday slowdowns and shortages, some larger food banks put in orders for turkey, chicken and other holiday staples like canned pumpkin and stuffing starting as early as April.

The SF-Marin Food Bank got enough Thanksgiving chickens “under the wire” after orchestrating orders across multiple vendors, but it cost about $100,000 more than budgeted, said Vice President of Supply Chain Barbara Abbott. But then earlier this week, a supplier abruptly canceled the delivery of an entire truckload of chicken broth.

“As the week goes on, and there’s more and more delays, it’s like a giant puzzle for us,” she said. “When things don’t come when we believe they’re going to come, it’s a huge ripple effect.”

Some smaller providers — which have fewer resources, staffing and money — have been less lucky. Lee of Martha’s Kitchen, which receives some supplies from larger food banks and also provides hot meals, said he’s worried about meat remaining prohibitively expensive through January and February. Already, his holiday fare will be limited.

“We’re in a tough spot right now,” Lee said. “I don’t know how quickly it’s going to change. We’re still keeping people fed, but are we going tohitapointwherewe’renot going to be able to come up with food? I don’t know.”

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