Supply chain woes, rising costs put stress on food shelves ahead of holidays

People work to pack food at a food shelf
Volunteers sort food for donation at the Second Harvest Heartland food bank in Brooklyn Park, Minn., on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021.
Tim Evans for MPR News

When the pandemic first started, the Jackson County Food Shelf in southwestern Minnesota saw a huge influx of first-time visitors. Now, nearly two years later, many of those people are regular clients who rely on the food shelf as a lifeline, said Tara Hansen, who co-manages the food shelf.

The demand for food has been especially high heading into the holidays, she said. 

“This year, we purchased enough that we thought would get us through four weeks before Thanksgiving,” Hansen said. “So everybody would have a little staple of some turkeys, some mashed potatoes, some green beans, some cranberry sauce.” 

But demand for those meals far outpaced the food that was available. 

“We had so many people come through that it lasted two weeks,” said Hansen, who worries that food shelf clients who live paycheck to paycheck might choose to go hungry in order to pay their heating bill or commute to work as they also cope with rising fuel prices

People move boxes and shopping carts around a workspace.
Volunteers help prepare food donations to distribute from Echo Food Shelf in Mankato, Minn. on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021.
Courtesy of ECHO Food Shelf

Those are things that also trouble Deisy De Leon Esqueda, director of the ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato, which has distributed about 1.5 million pounds of food so far this year and served more than 19,800 people.

Food banks are dealing with the same rising costs that clients are facing, she said. 

“We’re paying a lot more for our turkeys per pound than we did last year, just because there’s high demand, short supply and I can only assume that’s going to be something we’re going to be seeing in the future,” she said. ”It’s going to impact our purchases and how much money we’re spending as well.”

To make their money stretch further, ECHO staff has had to get creative. When food items get too expensive or can’t be found due to shortages, they source replacement products.

Instead of pies, the food shelf found another type of dessert to put into Thanksgiving dinner boxes this year, said Esqueda.

“One of our staff was able to find, instead of us having pie, she was able to find an apple crisp mix. And then, we were able to provide additional fruit for it so they could make their own dessert at home,” she said. “So, instead of you having pie, they were going to have some like pear crisp, peach crisp or something like that.”

People work to pack food at a food shelf
Volunteers sort onions for donation at the Second Harvest Heartland food bank in Brooklyn Park on Monday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Ground meat has been especially hard to get, partly because it’s more expensive, but also because fewer places are donating it. Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland based in the Twin Cities, said supply chain delays have affected other shipments of protein. 

“We, in fact, just received notice last week about an order of pollock that we made that was already delayed, but it'll be further delayed, we're not going to see it until mid January,” said O’Toole. “So we're not talking about delays that are just a week or two. They are weeks. And that really disrupts everything we're trying to do.”

Imports of culturally-specific foods like jasmine rice, soy sauce and sardines have also been delayed, she said. 

Second Harvest has distributed almost 200 million pounds of food to its hunger relief network, which is an 18 percent increase within the last two years. At the same time, O’Toole said SNAP referrals increased 54 percent, meaning there were more visits to the food shelves.

“I wish it was drastically different than it was a year ago, and I can’t say that,” O’Toole said. “As much as I’d like to say we’re coming to the end of this crisis, we are not. We have several rough years ahead of us and I wish I had a crystal ball so I could tell everyone it gets better, but it’s not better right now.”

People work to pack food at a food shelf
Haley Schanks, Hayley Broberg, and Karlee Strack volunteer at the Second Harvest Heartland food bank in Brooklyn Park.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.