The free food delivery that arrives at Beth Greenlee’s door each week is much more than an endpoint of the US supply chain. It’s her lifeline.
The 61-year-old has Stage 4 endometrial cancer and little income. For eight months, she’s been relying on food from MANNA, a non-profit that provides free meals to more than 1,200 of the sickest people in Philadelphia.
“I’ve even gained a few pounds in spite of my illness,” Greenlee said. “God only knows how thankful I am for the meals.”
But a crisis looms at MANNA. Their food costs are up 40%, they say, and by December they’ll likely have to stop taking on new clients – maybe hundreds of them.
“That will break our hearts,” MANNA CEO Sue Daugherty said. “But we could not have planned for this in a million years.”
As families across the country deal with wide ranging impacts of the congested supply chain – from delayed furniture to rising car prices – others are facing a more acute problem: finding enough to eat.
A survey published in September by Impact Genome and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 23% of Americans experienced food challenges in the past year, with 37% receiving some type of food assistance from non-profits or the government.
Right now, schools and non-profits are dealing with food supply price hikes and shortages.
Experts say there’s plenty of food out there, but with cargo ships backed up, manufacturers are missing materials. And shortages of labor and truckers are making it harder and more expensive to package food products and transport them where they need to go.
Food banks nationwide are facing a drop in donations.
“What we see is our food banks having to increase purchasing, which of course costs them a whole lot of money to get the food that they need for their communities,” Feeding America COO Katie Fitzgerald said. “Even donated food is being reduced because of the increased cost of food. So, for instance, manufacturers are able to give us less because they can sell that food on the secondary market, because of its increased value.”
At El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, a large food bank in El Paso, Texas, demand has quadrupled since the start of the pandemic. Now, truckloads of food just aren’t showing up to their desert community.
“We are struggling every day to find adequate supply,” CEO Susan Goodell said. “We are entirely dependent on manufacturers, suppliers, brokers, retailers, etcetera. So at the end of the day, we do not control our destiny when it comes to how much food is actually available.”
The Texas food bank is already dealing with a labor shortage, which forced it to close three of its five locations, making some families drive long distances to get their food.
In Philadelphia, the supply at the Mission House is the lowest it’s been during Annette Glover’s 27 years running the food pantry. Her concern is shifting to Thanksgiving, with the price of turkeys spiking and donations stalling.
“The biggest fear is that we [don’t] have enough food to feed the people,” she said. “If they don’t come in, I’ll use my money to buy them turkeys to have a good Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Supply chain problems have hit schools too, with food deliveries constantly delayed or canceled.
In June, the grocery vendor for the School District of Philadelphia abandoned them, citing the supply chain and a worker shortage. The district’s orders have been unpredictable all year.
“It’s actually vendors not producing products,” said Amy Virus, the district’s Manager of Administrative and Support Services. “We are really working behind the scenes to make sure we have something for the menu for students to have.”
Their schools are missing different items each week. Right now, they’re running out of paper trays. The district is making daily menu changes, even with their food staff down more than 20 percent.
The district insists the quality and quantity of their meals has not changed. But Stefanie Marrero started packing lunch for her four kids over concerns about their nutrition.
“They’d come home every single day hungry and wanting a full meal as soon as they walked in the door,” Marrero said, adding that the lunch packs have become a financial burden for her family.
A nationwide school problem
School districts nationwide are facing the same supply problems.
“Our vendors don’t have enough labor to produce all the food and supplies we’ve ordered, and distributors don’t have enough truck drivers to get the goods to us,” School Nutrition Association President Beth Wallace said. “So our school nutrition professionals are having to go to great lengths to get healthy food on the tray for all of our students each day.”
Cincinnati public schools are missing up to 20 food items each week. Schools in Denver can’t find enough milk. And Dallas public schools are adding more finger foods, like chicken tenders, because they can’t get enough utensils.
In Prince George’s County, Maryland, the public school district, citing the supply chain, canceled take-home suppers, which largely benefit children from low-income families.
Oscar Rivera has two sons in the district, and he’s currently unemployed. His family is now spending more on groceries and turning to food banks to put dinner on the table.
“We can no longer say ‘we’re going out to have fun’ because we need to buy food first,” Rivera said through an interpreter. “Food is the most important thing there can be in a home. Toys don’t matter, going out doesn’t matter, but food does matter.”
The US Department of Agriculture is sending $1.5 billion to schools to combat the food shortages. The government is also granting waivers allowing schools to find quick substitutes when more nutritious food products are not available.
Still, districts are reporting increased food budgets. That includes Philadelphia, where the added spending hasn’t bought stability.
“I do have a few sayings in my office and that’s one of them: ‘what is the crisis this week’,” said Amy Virus, of the Philadelphia school district. “We’re getting good at it, but it’s really a grind and we need some stability in the supply chain.”
CNN’s Matt Egan contributed to this report.