Despite national supply chain issues, Portage food banks healthy thanks to community support

·7 min read
Bill Bowen, Kent Social Services food coordinator, distributes hot meals at Trinity Lutheran Church in Kent.
Bill Bowen, Kent Social Services food coordinator, distributes hot meals at Trinity Lutheran Church in Kent.

Despite supply chain challenges hitting regional and national food networks, several Portage County food banks are still in good shape, thanks to the support of local community members, businesses and organizations.

The Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank experienced a reduction in the amount of food it distributed from 2020 to 2021, according to Dan Flowers, president and chief executive officer at the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank.

“In 2020, we distributed just under 37 million pounds of food, and this year we planned to do about the same,” he said. “We finished the year just over 30 million pounds.”

More: Portage County businesses among those finding supply chain links broken

Local food bank leaders said there were a few items that were harder to obtain from the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, but local donors and the fact that the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank was not charging for food in 2021 helped make up the difference.

Marquice Seward, program manager at Kent Social Services, said the organization received about 70% of its food in 2021 from the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank.

“Last year, everything we got from them was free,” she said. “We really were able to sustain services because of them.”

However, the community also was particularly generous, she added.

“We just had a board meeting, and our president mentioned how generous the local community has been throughout the pandemic,” said Seward. “Just in November, the Kent City Schools had their canned food drive, and they brought in a record-breaking more than 20,000 items. Here we are in a pandemic, and the community still steps up.”

Bill Bowen, Kent Social Services food coordinator, gives 3 hot meals to a client at Trinity Lutheran Church in Kent.
Bill Bowen, Kent Social Services food coordinator, gives 3 hot meals to a client at Trinity Lutheran Church in Kent.

Bill Bowen, Kent Social Services food coordinator, said area restaurants have been very supportive, as well. Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Red Lobster and Bob Evans all have provided food for Kent Social Services.

More: Ravenna schools distributing food while students are learning remotely

"We used to get stuff from Guido's at least every two weeks, if not more often, and now we get something from them once a month," he said, adding that Costco also donates food.

Bowen also said Kent Social Services gets meat from the Portage County Randolph Fair each year.

"A lot of people who buy the fair animals, the cows and the pigs, donate those to us," he said. "I probably get enough meat for six to eight months."

Ellie Boyer, treasurer for Crestwood 4Cs, said the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank lacked a few items in the recent past.

“Things like tuna, pasta, peanut butter and mac and cheese were in high demand at the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank throughout part of 2020,” she said. “These issues are starting to resolve, and we have been able to get those high-demand items again.”

Boyer said the 4Cs bought from local grocery stores to help supplement some of the staples that were in short supply at the food bank, and the local community stepped up, as well.

The Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank supplied about 12,000 pounds of food last year to the Crestwood 4Cs, and local Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts recently collected 1,200 pounds in a food drive, said Boyer.

The Randolph Suffield Atwater Food Shelf is another local pantry that receives food from the food bank, and Joan Trautman, one of three directors of the food shelf, said the community and local businesses helped insulate the food shelf from supply chain issues the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank has experienced.

“Giant Eagle gives us their meat on Tuesdays,” she said. “They have their meat on their shelves for three days, then they have to pull it off.”

More: Ground breaks on new Randolph-Suffield-Atwater Food Shelf building

She said the store also donates other items, as well.

The Randolph Suffield Atwater Food Shelf also has been supported by organizations, said Trautman.

“We have three school systems, and they really support us very well,” she said, adding the state highway patrol, the Suffield United Church of Christ and other churches have supported the food shelf, which is based in a new addition at the St. Joseph's Parish Knights of the Columbus building on Waterloo Road.

Diane Jones, another director of the Randolph Suffield Atwater Food Shelf, said getting free food from the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank helped during 2021, but that program ended Jan. 1.

“Our first trip to the Akron food bank will be a scary one, I think,” she said.

Lajoyce Harris, program manager at the Center of hope in Ravenna, said shelves are full at the Center of Hope.

“We’re not experiencing any lack, whatsoever,” she said. “We have been truly just blessed to have our community be able to step in and fill the gap for food insecurity.”

She said Center of Hope serves an average of 150 hot meals a day.

Realizing the Akron-Canton Foodbank was set to begin charging partners for food again in 2022, Harris said she "started ordering a tad bit more" from the food bank in November.

Bill Bowen, Kent Social Services food coordinator, waits for a car to come to a stop before handing containers of food.
Bill Bowen, Kent Social Services food coordinator, waits for a car to come to a stop before handing containers of food.

The big picture

While local food pantries have been somewhat protected from shortages due to local donations and savings realized by not being charged by the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank in 2021, Flowers said supply chain issues contributed to the foodbank’s smaller distribution numbers in 2021 compared with 2020.

Donations last year from Feeding America, a national organization that distributes food to regional food banks like the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, were down in 2021 due to supply chain problems, said Flowers.

“We were down nearly 2 million pounds in national food manufacture donations,” he said.

Another factor that hurt donations to the food bank this year was the discontinuation of the trade mitigation program established by the Trump administration, he said.

“When Trump had his trade embargoes on China, that affected exports,” said Flowers.

As a result, he explained, the government bought up food surpluses from American farmers that ended up getting routed to American food banks. That was another factor that caused the reduction in distribution from 2020 to 2021. In 2020, he said the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank received about 5.8 million pounds of food as a result of the trade mitigation program, and in 2021 that number was down to about 90,000 pounds.

“That was a great program for food banks around the country,” said Flowers. “There was no government program that stepped in and helped food banks this year.”

However, he did say more money going to SNAP and WIC did help reduce demand somewhat.

Flowers said the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank experienced the same type of strong local support that smaller Portage County food banks experienced.

“The local manufacturers took really good care of us this year,” he said. "J.M. Smuckers is a great company.”

Frito-Lay, U.S. Foods and Giant Eagle were other strong regional supporters, he added. Flowers said other large food manufacturers around the country are probably also supporting regional food banks rather than trying to overcome supply chain hassles to deliver food to Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organization.

“If you’re a food company based in Cincinnati and you don’t have that much to donate, you’re going to give it to the food bank in Cincinnati,” said Flowers. “That’s the same around here.”

Flowers also said he’s concerned about small, local food banks that may have lost volunteers during the pandemic. Many of those volunteers tend to be older and may have chosen to stay safe at home rather than continue to go out in public during the pandemic, he explained.

Bill Bowen, Kent Social Services food coordinator, holds a hot meal of Italian sausage, rice and vegetables, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Kent.
Bill Bowen, Kent Social Services food coordinator, holds a hot meal of Italian sausage, rice and vegetables, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Kent.

Fewer volunteers, coupled with the potential for greater demand for food as government subsidies are discontinued, could create challenges in the future for food banks, said Flowers.

“We’ve had 50 charities that got food from us that have shut down as a result of COVID,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to really work hard to nurture and rebuild the charitable food market.”

For now, however, leaders of several food banks in Portage County say they are still in good shape, thanks to the Akron-Canton Foodbank’s free year of food and strong local support.

Do you have a business or healthcare story you'd like to share? Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at 330-541-9440, bgaetjens@recordpub.com and @bobgaetjens_rc.

This article originally appeared on Record-Courier: Despite national supply chain issues, local food banks healthy

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