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As food insecurity rises, food banks grapple with supply chain bottlenecks

forklift carrying box filled with cabbage
A forklift operator whirls around Feed More's Richmond warehouse. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

A few days before Thanksgiving, the aisles in Feed More’s warehouse are somewhat quiet and empty. The trucks that carry donated food items to nearly 300 food pantries across Central Virginia took off earlier in the morning.

Breaking some of that silence however, are the beeps and whirs coming from a team of forklifts that scurry around the warehouse floors like mini Zambonis. The operators still have work to do; they unload pallets of newly donated items or take others filled with canned corn or fresh cabbage and prep them for upcoming donations.

But the quiet atmosphere also serves as a reminder that the high metal racks that line Feed More’s massive warehouse are normally a lot fuller this time of year. If they were, the beeps and whirs of the forklift army would join a chorus of volunteers hustling to fill orders.

“We've been struggling with getting product delivered to us,” says Feed More’s Chief Operating Officer Rick Gliot. He adds it’s not because of the Thanksgiving holiday, during which many take time off, that the warehouse is quiet. “It's primarily supply issues.”

Feed More distributes product in three different ways, says Gliot.

“We have agencies that order [from us] and we deliver to them. We have agencies that order and they come and pick it up,” he says. “And then we have other folks that just come and shop in the shopping area.”

Some of those agencies, says Gliot, include the Chesterfield Food Bank, the YMCA and various churches.

“We have 280-plus organizations in our territory that get food from us. So there's just about someone in every county and every area that we serve,” Gliot says.

Many items that Feed More distributes to their partners come from donations — either from large box stores or from people dropping off items into their big orange donation bins. However, the nonprofit still has to buy much of their food and get it delivered to its warehouse.

“We're doing very well on produce and frozen products,” Gliot says. “It’s the middle of the grocery store [that’s] a struggle for us. It's all of the soups and canned vegetables and breakfast items, all the things that you would normally see in the center of the grocery store are very difficult to get right now.”

Gliot says the product they're waiting for and need isn’t stuck on a container ship off of Santa Monica. The shortage revolves around something else.

“The supply chain is so tight right now primarily due to labor issues,” he says. “The food is out there, [we] just got to get the people to process it, and get people to deliver it.”

To get around those issues, Gliot says they’ve had to become creative.

“We've had to become very opportunistic of where we buy product,” Gliot says. “We're actually using our own fleet to go get product.”

He says it used to take two to three weeks to get food delivered. Now it falls between eight and 12 weeks, and he adds that “the transportation costs have gone through the roof.”

“We did go to North Carolina to pick up some product,” Gliot says. “It was not that we couldn't get the product. The product was there, but the transportation cost was $3,000 for the load.”

Instead Gliot says it cost them $500 to drive their own trucks to pick up items.

Money to get these products comes from donations and from Feed More’s parent organization Feeding America, which negotiates discounts for volume purchases.

“We take advantage of their negotiating power. We'll also go out and purchase on the open market,” Gliot says.

Another hurdle Feed More is trying to jump over is competition for food.

“We're actually competing against other food banks,” Gliot says. “We typically don't purchase the brand names, which the Food Lions and Publix would be competing for. We're competing for the off-brands and primarily with our own food banks across the United States.”

Because of the ongoing pandemic and the increasing cost of basic food items, more people are in need of food, says Feed More’s Media Strategist Rodrigo Arriaza.

“We've seen this huge influx of need right now,” Rodrigo says. “In terms of a numbers snapshot, more than 165,000 Central Virginians are unsure where their next meal is going to come from. That's one in nine individuals and one in six kids in Central Virginia that are experiencing food insecurity.”

Rodrigo says there’s been about a 15% growth in the number of people in the area who struggle to access food since 2019. This year, he says Feed More is on track to distribute around 35 million pounds of food to help families put a meal on their tables.

Gliot says there are many ways people can help, but one in particular works the fastest.

“Obviously, cash is king, and we'll always accept monetary donations. With our buying power, we can obviously buy better than you can get there at the grocery store,” he says.

But with the long wait times to get products delivered, he says food donations are always accepted.However, it should be what’s known as dry product, such as canned goods or breakfast items..

Gliot recommends people in the area drop off those items in their donation center which is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. But if people can’t make that window...

“We've got great big orange bins that say Feed More on the side of it and they could drop the product in the chute and we'll be more than happy to take it into our distribution,” he says.

Gliot says despite the quiet warehouse, they’ll be busy all the way up until January. And he says with the cost of food rising, he expects more people to come to Feed More over the holidays.

“We're expecting a pretty big influx of folks during the holiday season to help them get through,” Gliot says.

Help Feed More fill pantries with non-perishable items, including canned soup and veggies, pasta, sauce, peanut butter and breakfast items. Visit their website for more information.

Ian M. Stewart is a reporter, fill-in anchor for VPM News and he produces the World Music Show for VPM Music. He covers all sorts for stories in the region, from local government to sports to transportation issues.