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Supply chain issues, inflation impacting Sonoma County food pantries

Though concerns over COVID-19 may be easing, the need for food is not, local food pantry organizers say.

Supply chain issues, spurred by the pandemic, are causing major disruptions for food banks and their clients, even causing shortages of staples such as potatoes, rice, eggs and meats.

Food banks are scrambling to keep up with not only the supply chain issues, but also with never-before-seen inflation and gas prices, which is sending more families to the pantries.

The cost of purchasing food for its clients is up by 11% on average for Redwood Empire Food Bank, which is the major supplier of food to seven local pantries in Sonoma County and the largest hunger relief organization in the area.

In March 2020, Redwood Food Empire estimates they served about 23,000 people. In the span of two years the need has almost doubled, reaching an estimated 33,800 clients in March 2022.

Items such as eggs and fresh produce are now harder to get a hold of and more expensive said Jennifer Emery, director of Friends In Service Here, or F.I.S.H., a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit food pantry run by volunteers.

“It’s terrible,” Emery said. “We have to supplement with canned vegetables, and it’s like, who wants that?”

She said in recent months, Redwood Empire Food Bank, which supplies food to the F.I.S.H. pantry, didn’t have enough volunteers to transport a batch of potatoes before they rotted.

“It’s hit and miss with them,” Emery said. “I mean how can you be out of potatoes? It’s like a staple for everybody, and not just for us but for all the other food banks out there.”

In response to an inquiry from Emery about the potatoes, a Redwood Empire Food Bank spokesperson said that produce has been a real challenge. The California Association of Food Banks is struggling to source produce at the levels needed along with insanely high transportation costs.

“It starts all the way with not having enough volunteers, to not having enough of the administrative staff, to not having the drivers, to the farmers, all the way down,” Emery said.

“What we need is volunteers, that’s first and foremost,” Emery said. “It doesn’t matter how much food we have, if we don’t have enough people to distribute them then it doesn’t matter.“

Alison A. Smith, Director of Operations and Supply Chain for Redwood Empire Food Bank, said it has been a challenge in recent months to get necessary items from big box stores due to supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, though she would not specify which stores for “confidentiality reasons.”

Smith said that donations from big box stores have always ebbed and flowed based on their business model, but recently reductions in donations has become more commonplace.

“We appreciate every bit of donation we get from our all of our grocery stores and local manufacturers,” Smith said “We have seen a reduction in donations from some of them.”

“Even items you wouldn’t think of when it comes to food pantry needs are in short supply,” Smith said.

For example, a store that usually donates cornflakes was out of cardboard boxes to put them in because of supply chain issues, and so the food bank was forced to pass on them, Smith said.

The price of food has also gone way up, Emery said. A case of 15 dozen eggs used to be around $20, now it’s over $40.

There’s no way we can justify spending thousands of dollars on eggs when we rely on donations,“ Emery said.

On a recent Friday, Angela Demarcos, 48, of Santa Ana and her friend, Anthony, were sitting in his car waiting in line for the F.I.S.H. pantry to open.

Because of rising gas prices, Demarcos, who is on disability, has partnered with her friend to run errands together for their two families, sharing one vehicle for the day.

“We don’t go out unless we need to, so we as friends have come together to just use one car," Demarcos said. ”It keeps food on the table.“

She’s noticed that the food banks have less meat than before, but she’s thankful for their help.

“It’s a struggle,” she said. “I’m extremely grateful. The food they give to us has been nothing short of a blessing."

Lestia Garcia, 27, was in line with her son. Because of rising gas and food prices, she finds herself using the food pantry more often to feed her family while her husband continues his job as a field worker. to support her family while her husband works in the agricultural fields.

Garcia said they used to get two dozen eggs, but they’ve been receiving half-cartons lately, and definitely less meat.

“Now we’re skinnier,” Gracia said, jokingly. “I just try to just stick to using a lot of vegetables in our meals now...We’re incredibly grateful.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

Alana Minkler

Breaking news & general assignment reporter, The Press Democrat

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering breaking news, tribes and youth, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

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