WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — On June 30, inventory in the warehouse of the Winston-Salem-based Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina totaled 810,000 pounds of food.
On July 20, that inventory had plunged to 500 pounds.
So on July 24, the food bank sent an email message to its more than 400 partner agencies saying that, for the first time in its 28-year history, its cupboard was nearly bare.
“We had nothing here to distribute,” says Clyde Fitzgerald, executive director of the food bank. “And that’s a disaster.”
The depletion of inventory at the food bank, which typically distributes 38,000 pounds of food a day to agencies that provide food assistance in 18 counties, is the result of a “perfect storm,” Fitzgerald says.
Growth in demand for food has far outstripped growth in supply, which in turn has suffered an unusual series of interruptions, he says.
In the fiscal year ended June 30, demand for food assistance in the 18-county region grew 76 percent, while supply at the food bank grew only 12 percent to 15 percent, he says.
The food bank in the most recent fiscal year distributed nine million pounds of food, or the equivalent of 7.5 million meals, up roughly one million pounds from the
previous fiscal year.
Fueling the dramatic growth in demand has been high unemployment in a region in which the tobacco, textile and furniture industries, the traditional source of high-paying manufacturing jobs, have closed plants, consolidated operations and shipped jobs overseas, says Fitzgerald, a former senior executive of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
“We are faced with people who used to be of an income that they could make donations to Second Harvest and other human-service organizations, now find themselves needing assistance,” Fitzgerald says.
The food bank in July also saw a slowdown in deliveries of food that the federal government, through the state Department of Agriculture, delivers to it and the five other
food banks in the state that are part of the Chicago-based national Feeding America network of food banks.
At those other five food banks, Fitzgerald says, demand for food assistance last year grew 50 percent, on average.
The state’s delivery of food through that federal stimulus program, accounting for roughly one-third of the local food bank’s supply, should increase the week of August
3, Fitzgerald says.
The state nutrition assistance program, which provides funds to the six food banks to buy food and accounts for over 10 percent of the food the food bank distributes, has run dry in the face of the impasse among state lawmakers over the state budget, Fitzgerald says.
Even if lawmakers approve a budget soon, he says, it will be September at the earliest before the food bank actually can acquire food through that program.
“We’ve lost July and August,” he says.
Food received through Feeding America sources, which account for another eight percent of the food bank’s supply, also has hit a recent dry spell, Fitzgerald says.
And food drives and food the food bank picks up from grocery stories and reclaim centers, all of which account for roughly half the food bank’s supply, also have declined
Because most of the food bank’s partner agencies lack space to house their own inventory of food, they typically operate on a week-to-week basis, depending on the food bank to supply them with the food they need each week, Fitzgerald says.
And most of those agencies cannot afford to pay retail costs for food.
Last year, he says, the food bank saved its partner agencies $12 million in the cost of acquiring food.
“That’s why they count on us so much,” he says.
After the food bank informed its partners by email that it had run out of food, he says, donations began arriving from businesses and individuals.
Over that weekend, the food bank received roughly 15,000 pounds of food through food drives and deliveries from Merchants Distributors Inc., which owns Lowe’s Foods, and from T.W. Garner Foods.
And by late Monday, most of that food had been distributed to the food bank’s partner agencies.
Lowe’s Foods, Harris Teeter, Food Lion and Walmart have put the food bank “to the front of the line” at their reclaim centers, Fitzgerald says, and the food bank expected to receive 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of food from Food Lion on July 28.
And last week, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in Winston-Salem awarded the food bank an emergency grant of $150,000 to buy 300,000 pounds of food to supply to its partner agencies serving Forsyth County.
The first part of the shipment of food will be available the week of August 17, and the shipment will be completed the week of Sept. 14, Fitzgerald says.
“When our shelves are bare, their shelves are bare,” he says of the food bank’s partner agencies, “which means the people they serve, the people who need the food, don’t have any way to get it.” And he says the challenges the region faces in addressing the need for food assistance will not be solved quickly.
“The need for the community to support us is not short-term, it is long-term,” he says, “because of this sustained significant increase in demand, which is outstripping a
growing supply situation.”