Of all the images of this awful year, perhaps none were as gut-wrenching as those of cars, many occupied by people who’ve never known hunger, lined up for miles to accept free boxes of foodstuffs. Or those of milk farmers pouring untold gallons of product into the ground because their normal distribution channels were suddenly closed off and they had no way to reposition their supply before it spoiled.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 35.2 million Americans, nearly one-third of them children, lived in households with “food insecurity,” defined by the federal government as a household’s inability to provide enough nutritious food for each person to live an active, healthy life. That level, while a national disgrace for a country that throws away more healthy food than it knows what to do with, was still the lowest in 20 years.
The pandemic may have wiped out all of that progress. Nonprofit organization Feeding America projects that more than one in six Americans, or 50 million people, could be food insecure in 2020. That’s up from one in nine in 2019. One in four children, 17 million in all, could be food insecure during the year, according to Feeding America estimates.
For Blake Thompson, Feeding America’s chief supply chain officer, the year had no road map. Food supply chains were turned upside down, forcing him and the Chicago-based group to build their own playbooks. The pandemic will leave lifelong learnings in developing resilient and nimble supply chains to meet the most urgent of human needs during future crises. But first, Thompson needs to get through the rest of 2020 and most of 2021. Below is an e-mail exchange from early December between Thompson and FreightWaves Senior Writer Mark Solomon.
FreightWaves: What impact has the pandemic had on Feeding America’s operations and how have you been able to pivot?
Thompson: The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a perfect storm of increased demand, declines in food donations and disruptions to the charitable food assistance system’s operating model. Food banks are on the front line, ensuring neighbors have the food they need during this difficult time. To make this possible, they’ve had to develop new and safer food distribution methods.
Despite a decline in volunteers and immense strain on the supply chain, our network has pivoted quickly to restructure operations to meet the surge in demand. Food banks adopted new no- or low-contact outreach. This included touchless drive-thru food distributions, prepackaged food boxes, and advance scheduling of pickups. Many food banks began home deliveries to reduce transportation expenses for the most vulnerable populations and quarantined households, including seniors and rural families. Others offered enrollment assistance for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by phone, text and mail.
Overall, COVID-19 has created a “new normal” for food banks’ operations that is likely here to stay.
FreightWaves: What impact will this latest spike in COVID-19 cases have on your operations?
Thompson: Food banks are now accustomed to new levels of demand and are maintaining different modes of operations, such as drive-thru distributions and scheduled pickup times, to help get food and resources safely to neighbors in need. Through these operations – and despite challenges in the supply chain – our network distributed an estimated 4.2 billion meals, equal to 5.2 billion pounds of food, from March 1 through Oct. 31.
Unfortunately, with no end in sight to the pandemic, Feeding America estimates the total need for charitable food over the next year will reach an unprecedented 17 billion pounds, which is more than three times the 5 billion pounds distributed in 2019. While we anticipate sourcing and distributing 7 billion pounds of food next year – largely driven by federal commodity food purchase programs – this will leave us with a 10 billion-pound gap between now and June of 2021.
We cannot predict how the increase in demand will change our operations, especially if federal commodities are not secured before the start of the new year. But we know there will continue to be an alarming need for food, and food banks will have to continue to innovate operations to best meet that need.
FreightWaves: Is demand higher today than for normal season periods?
Thompson: Yes. At the outset of the pandemic, our network saw an increase in the number of people seeking charitable food assistance, with many (about four in 10 people) getting help for the first time. Food banks have become accustomed to this new level of increased demand, which has been an average of around 60% more neighbors compared to the same time last year.
FreightWaves: What are the biggest logistical challenges for the organization? Have those challenges been altered, either permanently or temporarily, by the pandemic?
Thompson: The cost of first-mile transportation has increased in the last few months, primarily because of driver shortages. With the virus resurging, shortages have gotten worse, making it a very challenging freight market right now. In addition, protecting food bank staff, volunteers and the people we serve from COVID-19 is our top priority. Food banks have shifted the layouts of their volunteer sorting rooms, as well as their distribution models, to maintain social distancing, reduce the number of people congregating and minimize contact. We hope that operational shifts will continue to reduce the risk of contagion. However, these changes will continue to challenge food bank operational capabilities.
FreightWaves: What can interested partners do to optimize the food supply chain to support your efforts?
Thompson: Feeding America is seeking support from a broad field of stakeholders: continued federal support; in-kind food and product donations from retail and manufacturing companies; in-kind logistics and distribution support; and philanthropic contributions from corporations, individuals and foundations. To support efforts nationwide, partners can make a donation to Feeding America by going to feedingamerica.org. To support their community or affected communities directly, they can use the Feeding America food bank locator at feedingamerica.org/foodbank.
FreightWaves: We published a story around this time two years ago about an initiative between Feeding America, truckers and the General Mills Foundation to reduce food waste and get nutritious foodstuffs to needy recipients. How is the program progressing, and what role has it played in supporting your efforts during the pandemic?
Thompson: The MealConnect Logistics program is responsible for quickly connecting an additional 40 million pounds of product to the Feeding America network of 200 food banks. Availability of meat, dairy and shelf-stable food is the result of more than 60 carriers posting their rejected loads on the MealConnect platform. Through this technology, we moved an incredible amount of produce last spring when COVID-19 caused supply chain issues and a product glut at retailer distribution centers.
Our role is to make it as easy as possible for carriers to post loads onto the system while ensuring there’s enough information included for our food banks to accept the donation. This can be a balancing act, and the acceptance rate is something we are always monitoring to see how we might improve. As more retailers look to make zero waste a reality with their suppliers, we expect MealConnect Logistics will see even more volume in the future.