Community Resilience

Despite supply chain disruptions, food banks adapt to meet critical needs during COVID-19

As communities went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, food supply chains were disrupted around the world. The Global FoodBanking Network (GFN) member food banks navigated these challenges with agility and tenacity, developing creative strategies that fed approximately 40 million people in 2020.

Channels to acquire food suddenly shifted for food banks because of the global health crisis. Shelter-in-place restrictions stifled restaurant and hospitality operations, and with it, a source of cooked food donations. Meanwhile, food service distributors and farmers were left with overwhelming volumes of perishable food that could be donated, but only as fast as food banks could store and distribute it. Increased demand at the consumer level left grocery stores barren, with little product left to be donated to food banks. At the same time, increased rates of unemployment put additional pressure on the system, with millions of people finding themselves food insecure and in need of the critical services provided by food banks.

Despite these obstacles, food banks found ways to acquire food to meet community needs. Thanks to the efforts of their local leaders and partner organizations, GFN member food banks distributed over 882 million kilograms of food and grocery products in 2020, the highest amount distributed by the Network to date.

Across the Network, the biggest challenges food banks faced were declines in food procurement from the hospitality and restaurant sectors and grocers and retailers. Donations from these sources fell from 27 to 19 percent, and 12 to 4 percent, respectively, in 2020. In pre-pandemic times, FoodCycle Indonesia recovered cooked and raw surplus foods from markets and catering events across Jakarta; however, when the pandemic hit, these sources of food disappeared. FoodCycle responded by intensifying efforts to secure funds and developing a stronger and broader network of partnerships with corporations in a position to support food banks. A strengthened relationship with McDonald’s led to a donation of several pallets of frozen meat and cakes which enabled FoodCycle to provide for thousands of people. And this is just one of the creative partnerships embraced by FoodCycle in 2020, as the food bank recovered and distributed almost 180 tons of food, particularly to frontline medical workers and vulnerable or high-need communities.

While donations from grocery stores and food service declined overall, member food banks reported a 5 percent increase in product sourcing from farms and ranches, from 6 to 11 percent, and a 13 percent increase from manufacturers and processors, from 23 to 36 percent in 2020. Food banks had to increase capacity as they received high volumes of perishable foods and commercial-size food products from these sectors, so they expanded warehouse capacity and purchased additional equipment to support greater distribution. Many of these programs were, in part, supported by partners like GFN, which distributed emergency grants during the COVID-19 crisis.

Food banks like Scholars of Sustenance Thailand acquired large donations from food manufacturers and established Rescue Kitchen Programs to quickly cook and distribute prepared meals as warehouse storage was limited. They partnered with hotels with commercial kitchens and the fridge capacity to establish satellite locations and feed more people. By the end of 2020, Scholars of Sustenance Thailand had served over 4.25 million people and distributed over 1 million kilograms of food.

The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched GFN member food banks, and at the same time, demonstrated their ability to adapt. Despite the challenges of the past year, the Network will only continue to engage a diverse network of partners and donors, which will increase capacity to recover and distribute food.

“Food banks have always been really good problem solvers,” said Karen Hanner, GFN’s director of Product Sourcing and Strategic Partnerships. “They understand that they need to meet the needs of the people they’re serving. It’s been a year that’s strained the system, but it’s really demonstrated the resilience, creativity, commitment, and potential of the Network.”

To learn more about the work GFN food banks carried out in 2020, read the summary of what we learned from the latest annual survey of our Network.

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