Liz, a volunteer at the Bulldog Pantry for almost three years, is just one of many volunteers who make it possible for organizations to distribute free food in the Central Valley. Rising prices have made the job harder for some food banks. Photo via Bulldog Pantry Facebook page.

published on November 19, 2021 - 2:27 PM
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The holiday season is typically a busy time for food banks, but with rising food costs and an unbalanced supply and demand, donation centers need to be creative.

The Bulldog Pantry, a Fresno State student-run food pantry, has seen challenges throughout the pandemic.

“Last year was absolutely crazy and we were just kind of going week to week and getting by,” said Erica Bird, coordinator of the Bulldog Pantry.

Typically, the food pantry operates every other week, but up until August of this year, it operated every week due to a heightened demand for food. During the pandemic, people picked up prepackaged boxes and the food pantry prepared for a much larger volume of food donations.

“We feel like we’re playing it by ear all the time,” she said.

For Thanksgiving, Bulldog Pantry gives out boxes with canned goods and chicken but typically doesn’t have enough turkeys to give as the main course. This past Saturday was a donation day for this year’s boxes. Though Bird described it as a slow day, she noted that the distribution was unusual as it was on the first Saturday of the month rather than the second and fourth, and that at the beginning of the month people have more money to spend.

As for rising food costs affecting donations, Bird is waiting to see what happens.

“I think it probably will affect donations. I don’t know that we’ve seen it yet,” she said.

There are several businesses and partners that are helping in some way — this year, more than ever before, she said.

Anything Bulldog Pantry doesn’t get donated, it buys from the Central California Food Bank. But even the food bank’s supply has teetered.

“Their available food for us to buy has gone down substantially,” Bird said. “I see a bigger need for us to find other ways to get donations.”

Before the pandemic, she shopped for food without concern of supply.

“Now it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, when are they going to have bread?’” Bird said.

Central California Food Bank Co-CEOs Kym Dildine and Natalie Caples plan the food bank’s Thanksgiving donation process in the springtime in order to source and secure all the boxes.

Caples said through their times of short supply, they’ve learned to forecast two quarters in advance.

“It was really, really hard to be able to look at our member partners and say, ‘This is what we’re able to procure right now, and we are working so hard, but we don’t have everything that you need,’” Caples said.

For the Central California Food Bank’s holiday meal distribution, it donates between 10,000 to 15,000 boxes through its member partners. This year, planning ahead has helped them out.

“We’re lucky that even though there are constrictions in the food supply chain, we planned ahead, we knew that we were having challenges with the food supply chain during the pandemic and during Covid, and so it’s not going to be an issue for us to maintain our existing level of programming for the holidays,” Caples said.

The food bank also partners with Raley’s Supermarkets to help secure the food. Throughout the year, Raley’s raises funds and allows the food bank to either purchase fresh produce or shelf-stable goods.

Because they’re a large retailer, they have better access to food, Dildine said. However, the challenge is competing against big box retailers like Costco. That’s where the pre-ordering comes in, but costs are still rising.

“Costs continue to rise depending on the commodity, we’re seeing anywhere from 15 and 50% increased costs for product — which is hard for food banks. You’re operating within a nonprofit space, you’re operating based on the generosity of your donors,” Caples said.

Their success comes through good relationships with manufacturers and suppliers who donate product. Still, lower prices would only help the donations go further.

If the food pantry can’t access the right kind or amount of food it needs from the food bank, it partners with Food to Share, which saves surplus food from grocery stores and schools that might otherwise end up in landfills.

Bulldog Pantry sees more of an impact on perishable items like produce and bread.

“They have bailed us out more times than not because usually they have something — you just never know what it is,” Bird said.

Volunteers have been easier to recruit this year, though, partly due to the fact that students are taking classes in person again.

Kevin Bergquist, who is the sector manager in the food and agribusiness industry advisors at Wells Fargo, authored a report on turkey prices and found that the cost of the 2021 whole bird will be much higher than previous years.

He said these rising prices will affect buyers with the least amount of disposable income.

“If they can just pay more, they will,” Bergquist said.

Wholesale costs, which are provided by the US Department of Agriculture, report costs rising by about 75% — almost double. The costs are going up because of production cutbacks, he said.

“Production curtailments had a lot to do with Covid,” he said.

Coupled with increased demand when people stayed home on lockdown and ate more home-cooked meals, prices are bound to go up, he said. Even turkey breast is seeing higher costs compared to last year.

“You see a lot less turkey breast in cold storage. That’s kind of the reserve, that’s the surge protector for keeping prices level. When you know that is decreased significantly, that’s when prices kind of bounce up as well,” Bergquist said.

He doesn’t imagine stores will run out of turkeys, but prices will see the shift.

Though he couldn’t speak to how grocery stores — and their holiday donations — will fare this holiday season, he said they will have to take on the increasing wholesale costs.
Now whether they pass that along to the consumer or they reduce their margins, he said, that’s a decision for each store to make.

Save Mart Companies declined to comment.

Though supply and demand is not in balance, he believes that it will level out either by way of increased supply or reduced demand.

“At the same time when you have turkey producers getting a strong price, that’s an incentive to maybe run some overtime to produce more turkeys into the market, or reopen a plant or reduce that curtailment — those kind of things increase supply,” Bergquist said.

“We’ll see these things cycle, they always do,” he added.

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