Ever-Growing Needs Strain U.S. Food Bank Operations
Food charities are coping with shortages of some consumer goods, a crush of donations of others and soaring demand as they reset logistics for the Covid-19 pandemic era. Ever-Growing Needs Strain U.S. Food Bank Operations
People start lining up as early as 6 a.m. these days outside an emergency food pantry in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood.
“Whatever I have, I make it do,” Ms. Gilbert said.
Demand for the free vegetables, milk and canned goods on offer here has surged since the coronavirus pandemic torpedoed the U.S. economy, closing businesses and thrusting millions out of work. Social-services provider Camba Inc., which runs the pantry, said it served more than 18,000 people last month, nearly five times as many as in February, before the virus took hold in the U.S.
The scene is being repeated across the country as the growing need hits food banks and pantries, leading to long lines of people seeking food and straining providers coping with shortages of high-demand products like canned goods even as they handle a crush of produce from sidelined food-service operations.
Food-relief organizations are retooling their operations for the Covid-19 era, testing out new distribution tactics, bringing on temporary labor and scrambling to secure storage space to meet a level of need that some say could stretch into next year and beyond.
More than 82% of U.S. food banks are serving more people than they were last year, with an average increase of 50%, according to a June survey by the group.
“The pandemic is putting pressure on a system that was already struggling to make sure all the food we are producing finds its way to people,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.
Food banks act as the logistics arm for a swath of hunger-relief programs, overseeing supply chains that connect donations to those in need. They recover surplus food from supermarkets, manufacturers, farmers and government agencies and then ship, store and distribute that food to smaller agencies such as food pantries and meal programs.
When the pandemic first hit, consumer stockpiling decimated the supply of shelf-stable products that are the backbone of food-relief efforts.
Donations of items like rice and soup dried up, forcing many food banks to buy the goods instead and compete with retailers and other food banks. The products remain in high demand as coronavirus caseloads soar in many U.S. states.
“There is almost a bidding war for some of this product,” said Kristopher Tazelaar, a spokesman for Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin.
Earlier in the pandemic, Ms. Scales said, the group was hearing from vendors who told them things like: “If the shipping container gets loaded, and if the ship isn’t abandoned at sea, and if they let it dock, and if it clears customs without being seized by [federal authorities], and if we can find trucking, we’ll have your rice there in six weeks.”
Those delayed loads are coming in now, she said, and the volumes are straining the group’s warehouse operations and capacity. The food bank leased space in a nearby convention center in May and June before that site was set to reopen for events.
Like other food banks, it is leasing outside storage space at higher-than-normal levels and has brought on more workers to handle the goods, adding to growing costs.
Earlier this year, the Greater Chicago Food Depository was using the United Center, the home arena for the National Basketball Association’s Chicago Bulls and the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks, as a logistics hub.
The organization sent almost 920,000 pounds of food to the arena between late March and late May, when faster distribution of the food boxes reduced its need for extra storage.
Volumes at the Houston Food Bank, the largest in Feeding America’s network, have more than doubled since the pandemic.
The group distributed on average 25 trailer loads of food a day in May and June compared with 10 during the same period last year. “We’ve been spending a fortune on trucking,” Chief Executive Brian Greene said.
The group has rented a second warehouse and is securing a third, with more space to accommodate volunteers working under social-distancing requirements.
That facility also will have refrigerated storage to accommodate a more than 10 percentage-point jump in donated produce since the pandemic shut down much of the U.S. restaurant and food-service industries.
“The building doesn’t just grow,” said Mr. Tazelaar of Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, which is trying to secure more cooler and freezer space. “Our partner agencies, a lot of them are doing it with the freezer you might have down in your basement.”
Once goods reach pantries, social-distancing requirements are complicating distribution. Some groups are switching from their usual supermarket-type setups, where people pick out the goods they want, to drive-up operations, in which workers assemble boxes ahead of time and place them in people’s trunks.
Organizations seeking to reach seniors and people in home quarantine are sometimes working with big digital operators focused on residential delivery. Amazon.com Inc. is donating delivery services to food banks across the U.S. through its network of Amazon Flex drivers.
DoorDash Inc., known for its restaurant deliveries, adapted its software to accommodate bulk food orders and batched delivery routes through partnerships with government agencies, restaurants and nonprofits.
New York City-based Camba, which relies on a mix of donations and purchased goods, said earlier shortfalls of basic items like milk are easing. Recently, the group received funding from a state program aimed at rerouting surplus agricultural products from New York dairy farmers and growers to food banks.
Much of the milk, yogurt and produce the group gets now is given out the day it is delivered, said Janet Miller, Camba’s senior vice president. “Everything is kind of just-in-time.”
Food Pantries Have Had To Rethink Everything This Year
How four of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. are adapting to deliver aid during a pandemic.
Feeding the hungry gets a lot of attention around the holidays, but this year food pantries began putting out calls for support on the day lockdowns began in March.
The increase in need was compounded by social distancing measures, which meant forging new ways of giving and volunteering. We checked in on four areas in the U.S. where income inequality is particularly acute.
Lower Fairfield County, Conn.
At Person-to-Person, located in a county that contains eight of the top 100 wealthiest ZIP codes in the U.S., the number of volunteers is down 33%. Retirees and older adults normally make up the bulk of them, but this is as an at-risk population, so many have been stepping back, perhaps permanently.
College students and furloughed workers have filled part of the void, powering a new free-delivery service: More than 200 volunteers made 744 door-to-door deliveries to provide about 40,000 meals in October. “We had to pivot,” says Nancy Coughlin, chief executive officer of Person-to-Person.
Early on, supply chain issues pushed food costs up 145%, from $11,000 to $27,000 a month, but fundraising efforts have met the additional expenses. The biggest budget increase has been for emergency cash assistance to help pay rent and electricity bills: It’s gone from $35,000 a month before Covid-19 to as much as $144,000.
The end-of-year campaign has a goal of $1.4 million, up $400,000 from last year. One of its fundraisers this month has been altered due to pandemic restrictions: Instead of getting to visit with Santa Claus at a party, families can arrange to have him drive by their homes on a fire truck.
Summit County, Utah
The Christian Center of Park City is serving 1,000 people a week using drive-through pantries it operates on every day but Sunday. Last year, no more than 15 families a month would apply for cash assistance in the tourism-reliant locale; this year the number has risen to 1,300. So far, the CCPC has distributed almost $1 million in rent aid.
The community has contributed more than $2 million, and there’s been a 40% increase in new donors. Money given to CCPC through the Park City Community Foundation, where many affluent families set up donor-advised funds, approached $500,000.
CCPC also administers the Most Vulnerable Fund, which was started in late March by three friends to help restaurant and service workers who had lost jobs in Summit and neighboring Wasatch County. About 100 people have participated, bringing in more than $220,000.
Palm Beach County, Fla.
In the pandemic’s early days, the Palm Beach County Food Bank began distributing three times the amount of food it usually does. Then the executive director left her post to live closer to her children. Jim Greco, a board member and former chief executive officer of Sbarro LLC, stepped in as interim CEO.
He’s had to manage a virtual job search, along with an influx of locals moving to what’s now the third-wealthiest spot in the country (average annual income: $1.37 million).
“Folks contact us and say they’d like to help,” he says. “I don’t know some of them, because they’re new here, but I’ll see they’ve just purchased a home on Palm Beach island.”
This year, the organization secured its largest gift ever: $1 million from longtime resident Lois Pope, widow of the National Enquirer’s founder. Greco says the biggest impression made on him has been from donors asking to come in to tour the facility—about three a month since June.
The organization has raised $2.3 million, with $400,000 to go, in order to move to a facility that will double its capacity.
Blaine County, Idaho
Sun Valley’s home, with its skiing and Davos-like Allen & Co. conference, has the nation’s fifth-highest grocery costs, according to Feeding America. When resorts and restaurants shut down, the Hunger Coalition’s food pantry—the only one within 200 miles—began providing food to more than 330 families a week, up from 142 last year.
The wave of support included donations of hundreds of egg cartons and 500 pounds of potatoes, while 65 volunteers maintained a community garden of vegetables and fruit for a curbside pantry. The organization is raising $10 million for a center to open in 2021 that’ll have greenhouses and a “next-gen” food pantry with online ordering capability.
Other features will include a community kitchen and health services. There will also be staff and a meeting space to help address the root causes of hunger.
More Than A Third of Earth’s Population Faces Malnutrition Due To Covid
The economic crisis and food system disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic will worsen the lack of nutrition in women and children, with the potential to cost the world almost $30 billion in future productivity losses.
As many as 3 billion people may be unable to afford a healthy diet due to the pandemic, according to a study published in Nature Food journal. This will exacerbate maternal and child under-nutrition in low- and middle-income countries, causing stunting, wasting, mortality and maternal anemia.
Disruptions in supply chains for perishable nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat and fish, have led to price volatility and declining consumption of these foods.
Households have switched to less expensive sources of calories, including starchy staples, cereals, oils and ultra-processed foods that lead to poorer-quality diets.
By 2022, pandemic-related disruptions could result in an additional 9.3 million children who weigh too little for their height, 2.6 million who are too short for their age, 168,000 child deaths and 2.1 million maternal anemia cases. This could cause future productivity losses of $29.7 billion, according to the study.
Without swift and strategic responses, the pandemic “will not only reverse years of progress and exacerbate disparities in disease, malnutrition and mortality, but will also jeopardize human capital development and economic growth for the next generation,” the researchers said.
World hunger has hit a 15-year high and a 10th of the global population was undernourished in 2020, according to the United Nations. It’ll take a “tremendous” effort for the world to fulfill a pledge to end hunger by 2030, the agency said this month as it reiterated a call to transform food systems.
Elon Musk Wants Proof $6 Billion Can Solve World Hunger
Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, challenged a United Nations official’s claim that just a small percentage of his wealth could help solve world hunger.
Musk was responding to comments by David Beasley, director of the UN’s World Food Programme, who repeated a call last week following an earlier tweet this month asking billionaires like Musk to “step up now, on a one-time basis.”
Beasley specifically called for action from Musk and Amazon.com Inc. co-founder Jeff Bezos, the two men atop the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Just $6 billion could keep 42 million people from dying, Beasley said.
If the World Food Programme, using transparent and open accounting, “can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it,” Musk wrote in a Twitter post.
Musk is CEO of the electric-vehicle company, which last week joined the handful of companies valued at more than $1 trillion.
The $6 billion amount would be just a small fraction of Musk’s current net worth of $311 billion — and less than the $9.3 billion his wealth increased on Oct. 29 alone, according to Bloomberg’s wealth index.
Tesla forms the vast majority of Musk’s net worth. He’s very rarely sold stock in the electric-vehicle maker, whose shares reached a record $1,114 on Friday.
His fortune has also surged thanks to his stake in SpaceX, a private space-exploration company that was valued at about $100 billion last month.
Musk, frequently outspoken on social media, has also been critical of attempts to tax U.S. billionaires.
He said on Twitter that a levy on billionaire wealth would only make a “small dent” toward paying off the national debt, arguing that the focus should be on government spending. Musk also said a billionaire tax would just be the start of taxing the merely wealthy.
Global Hunger Demands Revolutionary Solutions
A few billion dollars from Elon Musk would save lives right now. A long-term commitment to sustainable agriculture could save the future.
When United Nations World Food Program director David Beasley recently called for billionaires to help solve world hunger, Elon Musk took the bait — vowing to sell $6 billion in Tesla stock if Beasley could tweet “exactly how” the money would feed humanity. Predictably, the media and Twitterverse erupted, mostly in protest.
Beasley’s provocation was not only defensible, it was necessary, as are big investments from Musk and other private-sector leaders. Forty-two million people are on the brink of famine.
Musk could buy each of them a 43-cent meal per person per day, which over 365 days amounts to a cost of $6.6 billion. That intervention would hardly solve world hunger, but near term it would save many lives.
What was lost in the ensuing social media fracas was the idea that investments in food security must extend well beyond emergency aid.
UN Food Agency Halts Work In North Darfur, Affecting 2 Million
The World Food Program has suspended its operations across Sudan’s province of North Darfur following recent attacks on its warehouses, a decision expected to affect about 2 million local people.
A statement released by the U.N. food agency Thursday said all three of its warehouses in the area were attacked and looted. More than 5,000 metric tons of food apparently were stolen, the group said.
Earlier in the week, the WFP said an unidentified armed group had attacked one of its warehouses in North Darfur’s provincial capital of el-Fasher. In response, local authorities imposed a curfew across the province.
However, the attacks continued until early Thursday, said the statement. Hundreds of looters have also dismantled warehouse structures, WFP added.
“This theft has robbed nearly two million people of the food and nutrition support they so desperately need,” said WFP Executive Director David Beasley. “Not only is this a tremendous setback to our operations across the country, but it endangers our staff and jeopardizes our ability to meet the needs of the most vulnerable families.”
The agency said it cannot divert assistance from other parts of the East African country to the looted warehouses without compromising the needs of vulnerable Sudanese living outside the province.
Sudan is one of the poorest counties in the world, with nearly 11 million people in need of food security and livelihood assistance in 2022, said the WFP.
The agency urged Sudanese authorities to recover the looted stocks and guarantee the security and safety of the WFP operations in North Darfur.
On Thursday, the country’s state-run news agency reported that a number of suspects were arrested in el-Fasher after they were seen riding trucks and animal-drawn carts loaded with food stocks that were allegedly stolen from the WFP warehouses. SUNA news agency did not say how many were arrested.
The WFP decision comes amid political upheaval that followed the October military coup.
On Friday, a doctor’s group said that five people were killed in anti-coup protests that erupted a day earlier in several provinces across the country. Security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse thousands of protesters, the group said. With Thursday’s fatalities, the total death toll since the coup has risen to 53.
Meanwhile, the Sudanese police acknowledged in a statement issued on Friday that four protesters were killed and more than 290 were wounded in the protests. The statement posted on SUNA made no mention of police using tear gas or live ammunition. The police added that more than 40 policemen were wounded in clashes with protesters.
America’s Hunger Pandemic Is Getting Worse
A slew of factors — including poverty, inflation and Covid — have placed tens of millions of Americans at risk of food insecurity.
Early in the pandemic, Americans lined up for hours outside of food banks, awaiting their chance to collect groceries. Many of them had experienced food insecurity before Covid-19. Tens of millions of others were new to such assistance. Only thanks to emergency federal intervention was a serious hunger crisis averted in 2020.
Unfortunately, even as the pandemic has eased by some measures, a range of factors is still preventing many Americans from finding enough to eat. Those stresses continue to fall on the nation’s food banks. As Covid drags on, their mission is becoming harder and more expensive.
To ensure that the lingering effects of the coronavirus don’t lead to sparse dinner tables this winter, Congress should step up for the charities that keep Americans fed.
Food insecurity is a condition in which individuals and families lack access to enough food to live a healthy life. In 2019, 10.9% of Americans, or roughly 35 million people, fit that description at some point. Government programs like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) helped reduce those numbers. So did food banks.
Even with such help, though, food insecurity persisted. When Covid and its economic disruptions hit, already vulnerable demographics found themselves in particular need. So too did the newly unemployed, those whose hours were cut substantially, and parents suddenly forced to stay home due to closed schools and daycares.
The impact on food banks was dramatic: According to the charity Feeding America, the number of people needing food assistance soared to 60 million in 2020, up 50% from the previous year.
Congress responded with a range of emergency measures, including expanded SNAP benefits and school-meal delivery programs. But for food banks, the most important step was a $1.2 billion injection to the Emergency Food Assistance Program, under which the Department of Agriculture buys food from farmers and distributes it to states.
In 2020, that program and others allowed Feeding America and its associates to distribute 2.5 billion meals. That assistance worked wonders: Despite the pandemic and associated disruptions, American food insecurity didn’t increase in 2020.
Second Harvest Heartland, a Twin Cities food bank, has distributed nearly 200 million pounds of food since the start of the pandemic. Even so, demand has yet to slacken. Allison O’Toole, the group’s chief executive officer, told me that food shelf visits are still 30% over pre-pandemic numbers, in line with what other U.S. food banks are reporting.
“I would frankly like to say that the worst of the Covid hunger crisis is over. And it’s just not true,” she said.
She cited many factors at play in Minnesota, including high Covid hospitalization rates, the end of emergency unemployment and SNAP benefits, and food inflation — which not only hurts individuals and families, but also affects food banks that rely on donations and their own food purchases.
“We are seeing prices going up, from canned veggies and fruit, to proteins.” The last category is particularly worrisome: At Second Harvest, meat donations are down roughly 30%.
In 2020, government aid helped fill such gaps. But many of those programs ended over the past year, while private donations have often dried up. Food banks have increased their purchases by 58% compared to 2020, but rising prices and supply-chain disruptions have meant that those purchases don’t go as far they once did, imperiling nutrition for those who can least afford it.
As the U.S. faces new variants and another Covid winter, that’s a looming crisis that the government can’t ignore. Although Congress is expected to offer another $2 billion for the Emergency Food Assistance Program in 2022, America’s food banks — led by Feeding America — argue that’s insufficient to address the current wave of those needing help. They’re seeking an additional $900 million to help stock their shelves and meet sustained demand.
It’s a reasonable request, and Congress should approve it. But these emergency interventions should prompt deeper investigations into how and why food insecurity remains a chronic, decades-old problem in America — one that Covid has only made worse.
Monthly Child-Tax-Credit Payments Cease, Ending Cushion For Family Budgets
Many Democrats want to revive the expanded child-tax credit, but opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin and Republicans is forcing them to rethink.
Families are bracing for bank balances to suffer when the middle of January comes and the monthly child-tax-credit payment doesn’t.
More than 30 million households started getting up to $300 per child in July after Congress temporarily transformed an annual tax break into a near-universal monthly benefit.
The full expanded credit went to households with incomes up to $75,000 for individuals, $112,500 for many single parents and $150,000 for married couples. Families spent the money on essentials like groceries and stashed it as emergency savings, researchers found.
Democrats hailed the expansion as a simple yet groundbreaking policy that sharply cut child poverty and confidently proclaimed the credit would prove so popular and beneficial that Congress wouldn’t let it lapse.
It just lapsed.
The House-passed version of Democrats’ $2 trillion education, healthcare and climate bill would have extended payments through 2022, but Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) effectively killed that proposal last month. Though some Republicans support some child tax-credit expansion, they oppose the broader bill for its expansion of government assistance and tax increases.
Now, in the closely divided Congress, there is no clear political path to reinstating the expanded tax break, leaving parents facing the prospect of balancing family budgets without the extra assistance at a time when consumer prices are rising at their fastest pace in decades.
When Democrats return to Washington, they will attempt to revive and reconstruct the bill to win Mr. Manchin’s pivotal vote.
His objections included the budgetary strategy of counting just one year of costs for the child-credit expansion when Democrats intend it as a prelude to permanent policy. Many Democrats preferred a multiyear extension but chose one year to keep the bill’s total cost inside Mr. Manchin’s target range.
Mr. Manchin’s rejection may force Democrats to choose between the credit and other priorities. He also criticized the credit for being too generous for higher-income households and lacking links to work.
If the credit returns soon, Democrats could consider a February double payment to make up for a missed January payment. The exact schedule and monthly amounts would depend on when the law is enacted, Treasury officials said, and the administration is focused on getting payments out as soon as possible.
Veronica Moreno, 30 years old, leaned on the credit to cover basics after her temporary, $15-an-hour job signing people up for Covid-19 vaccines ended in August. The Ellicott City, Md., resident put the $750 monthly payment toward bills including utilities and internet service. Her children, ages 15, 14 and 10, need to go online for homework and remote classes if schools halt in-person learning again.
Ms. Moreno is leaving fliers around her neighborhood advertising her notary services and seeking a new job. She hopes to work remotely because she has Type 1 diabetes and worries about Covid-19 complications.
But the potential financial consequences of the payments’ ending loom large. “I try to keep a smile on for my children and just to let them know everything is OK,” Ms. Moreno said in December. “But I’ve been having panic attacks thinking about next month.”
The child credit existed before 2021 in a much different form, and that is the version in place for 2022. Families can get up to $2,000 per child on their tax returns; low-income families don’t get the full benefit or any money during the year.
In 2021, the expanded credit boosted the annual value to $3,000 for most households; created a $600 bonus for children under age 6; added the monthly payments; and made the lowest-income families eligible for the full credit.
Upper-income households that weren’t eligible for more money also got part of their regular $2,000-per-child credits in the monthly payments. On their 2021 tax returns, people will claim the credit, subtracting any monthly payments from their total eligibility.
Democrats made the changes in March on party-line votes. The credit became more visible to families as a monthly income stream than an annual line on a tax return. The expansion included the features Democrats are most eager to preserve, because they pour money into low-income households and can be sold as middle-income tax cuts.
“I’ve been around this place for a lot of years now, and it doesn’t have any trouble extending tax cuts when it’s rich people’s tax cuts,” a frustrated Sen. Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), one of the credit expansion’s lead backers, said in December.
But there is little room for bipartisan agreement, because the changes Democrats emphasize are the ones that draw opposition even from Republicans who support a larger child tax credit. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), who pushed for the credit’s expansion as part of the 2017 GOP tax law, objects to the feature that lets families get money without earning income.
“Bipartisan opposition killed the Biden administration’s government child allowance because it is antiwork,” Mr. Rubio said. “We now have an opportunity to build on the 2017 child tax credit and further expand support for working parents without those bad outcomes.”
Families used the credit to pay for necessities, researchers found.
The top items households spent on were food, essential bills and clothing, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data from the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. More than 70% of families primarily spent the payments or used them to pay down debt, the analysis found. Just less than 30% mostly saved it.
The share of families with children who reported not having enough to eat sometimes or often dropped to 8.4% from 11% after the expanded credit took effect, according to census data.
Many families hung on to at least some money. The median bank account balance for families receiving the credit was 65% higher at the end of September than two years earlier, a recent JPMorgan Chase Institute analysis of banking data found. That compares with 49% for households who didn’t get the credit.
“We’re going to see a more precarious situation for families,” said Leah Hamilton, an associate professor at Appalachian State University and co-author of the Social Policy Institute analysis.
That policy of short-term cash infusion may have long-run consequences because it would discourage some low-income people from working, said Bruce Meyer, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. He said it effectively resumed unconditional cash aid to families that existed before the U.S. changed welfare policy in 1996.
“We’ve run this experiment in reverse 25 years ago, and we saw employment go up, poverty fall for single parents,” Mr. Meyer said. “It’s not just ‘you give people money and it’s money in their pocket,’ end of story.”
Jamie and Stephanie Herrington’s spending dropped in the pandemic’s early months, and they cut their mortgage payments by refinancing. With stimulus checks and the $300-a-month payment for their 4-year-old daughter, the Lebanon, Ore., family built a sizable emergency savings fund for the first time.
The couple also spent money on clothes, Christmas gifts and meals out. Mr. Herrington, a laboratory technician who earns $62,000 a year, said he felt confident that their budget could handle higher inflation. “It gave us breathing room, just being able to just go to the supermarket and not worry when you see the prices,” he said.
Now, the family is preparing to dial back discretionary spending and dip into their $17,000 in savings. Mr. Herrington, 39, is considering replacing his car, which has more than 200,000 miles on it. He needs dental work. The family’s home requires repairs.
“It was nice, not living paycheck to paycheck,” Mr. Herrington said.
U.S. Food Supply Is Under Pressure, From Plants To Store Shelves
Weeks of workers calling in sick add to continuing supply and transportation disruptions, making store shelves harder to fill.
The U.S. food system is under renewed strain as Covid-19’s Omicron variant stretches workforces from processing plants to grocery stores, leaving gaps on supermarket shelves.
In Arizona, one in 10 processing plant and distribution workers at a major produce company were recently out sick. In Massachusetts, employee illnesses have slowed the flow of fish to supermarkets and restaurants. A grocery chain in the U.S. Southeast had to hire temporary workers after roughly one-third of employees at its distribution centers fell ill.
Food-industry executives and analysts warn that the situation could persist for weeks or months, even as the current wave of Covid-19 infections eases. Recent virus-related absences among workers have added to continuing supply and transportation disruptions, keeping some foods scarce.
Nearly two years ago, Covid-19 lockdowns drove a surge in grocery buying that cleared store shelves of products such as meat, baking ingredients and paper goods.
Now some executives say supply challenges are worse than ever. The lack of workers leaves a broader range of products in short supply, food-industry executives said, with availability sometimes changing daily.
Supermarket operators and food makers say that overall supplies are ample, despite the continuing labor shortages and difficulties transporting goods. They say that shoppers will find what they are looking for, but may have to opt for different brands.
Eddie Quezada, produce manager at a Stop & Shop store in Northport, N.Y., said Omicron has stretched his department more than any previous wave of the pandemic, with one in five of his staff contracting Covid-19 in early January. Deliveries also have taken a hit, he said: Earlier in the month he received only 17 of the 48 cases of strawberries he had ordered.
“There is a domino effect in operations,” Mr. Quezada said.
At a Piggly Wiggly franchisee in Alabama and Georgia, about one-third of pickers needed to organize products and load trucks at the grocery chain’s distribution centers were out sick in the first week of January, said Keith Milligan, its controller.
The company has been struggling to get food to stores on time due to driver shortages and staffing issues that haven’t improved, Mr. Milligan said, leaving Piggly Wiggly to change its ordering and stocking plans daily in some cases. Frozen vegetables and canned biscuits are running low, he said.
In-stock levels of food products at U.S. retailers hit 86% for the week ended Jan. 16, according to data from market-research firm IRI.
That is lower than last summer and pre-pandemic levels of more than 90%. Sports drinks, frozen cookies and refrigerated dough are especially low, with in-stock levels in the 60% to 70% range. In-stock rates are lower in states such as Alaska and West Virginia, IRI data show.
“We were expecting supply issues to get resolved as we go into this period right now. Omicron has put a bit of a dent on that,” Vivek Sankaran, chief executive of Albertsons Cos., said on a Jan. 11 call with analysts. He said the Boise, Idaho-based supermarket giant expects more supply challenges over the next month or so.
Similar challenges at packaged-food and meatpacking plants mean that shortages could linger, industry officials and analysts said. The Agriculture Department showed cattle slaughter and beef production over the week of Jan. 14 were down about 5% from a year earlier, with hog slaughtering down 9%.
Chicken processing was about 4% lower over the week ending Jan. 8, the USDA said. Labor shortages are also affecting milk processing and cheese production, according to the agency.
Because it often takes weeks for meat to reach store shelves from the plants, the current Omicron-related labor problems at producers could prolong supply issues, said Christine McCracken, executive director of meat research at agricultural lender Rabobank. “This might mean less meat for longer,” she said.
Lamb Weston Holdings Inc., the top North American seller of frozen potato products, said in January it expected labor challenges to continue affecting production rates and throughput in its plants, where staffing shortages have already disrupted operations.
Conagra Brands Inc., which makes Birds Eye frozen vegetables and Slim Jim meat snacks, said earlier this month that more of its employees have been testing positive for Covid-19 at a time when elevated consumer demand already is outpacing the company’s available supplies.
In Massachusetts, Tom Zaffiro is struggling to move fish to grocery stores and restaurants. Mr. Zaffiro, president of Channel Fish Processing Co., said the company is only able to run at 80% capacity on days when key workers are out, while short-handedness at trucking companies and breading suppliers make it still harder to prepare and transport the company’s fish.
Channel has tripled lead times for customers, he said, and those that don’t meet a minimum order aren’t guaranteed supplies at all.
Vegetable suppliers in the West, which provide the bulk of America’s leafy greens during the winter, also face production challenges.
Steve Church, co-chairman at Church Brothers Farms, a California-based produce company, said some 10% of employees at his Arizona vegetable processing plant and distribution facility were out sick on any given day earlier this month.
That number dropped last week, and Mr. Church said he still has been able to fill orders, but he worries about the toll the added work is taking on Church’s remaining employees, who are working overtime to keep fresh-cut vegetables and bagged salads moving to grocers and restaurants such as Walmart Inc. and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.
“Those people are tired and they want days off,” said Mr. Church. “It’s a vicious circle.”
Food companies and supermarket chains’ costs are rising as they struggle to operate with fewer employees. In Northport, Stop & Shop has offered unionized employees overtime pay to cover shifts for sick staff and asked part-time employees to work longer hours, said Mr. Quezada, the produce manager, adding that staffing and deliveries are improving in his department.
Stop & Shop said it is experiencing the impact of the latest increase in Covid-19 cases like other businesses across the country.
The company said it doesn’t anticipate disruptions to customers’ shopping experience and that it has plans in place to continue operating.
Midwest-based Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets has been running low on frozen breakfast products, canned beans and other items, and has been buying whatever it can get to keep its shelves stocked, said Dan O’Neill, director of center store and perishables at the grocer.
“We are not seeing any kind of relief,” Mr. O’Neill said, adding that the company is trying to secure more inventory from alternative suppliers.
Brandon Johnson, president of Korth Transfer, a Wisconsin-based trucking company that hauls goods ranging from vinegar to beer, said the latest wave of Covid-19 cases has hit Korth’s employees nearly as hard as the pandemic’s earliest phase. Mr. Johnson said he has grown accustomed to telling customers he simply doesn’t have drivers left to move their loads.
Mr. Johnson said he spent about 20 days behind the wheel of his own trucks last year, including a 500-mile round-trip journey to ferry a load of soy sauce from its manufacturer to a condiment supplier for use in a teriyaki recipe.
“It makes it easy to say we’re tapped,” Mr. Johnson said, referring to his days spent filling in as a driver. “I can say, ‘I have no more to give. We’ve got everyone we can working for you.’”
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