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Pivoting to perishables

Nov 2, 2020 | Newsletter, Foodbank Blog

Behind each emergency food box, food distribution, and pantry is a team of 15 Food Bank employees that manage all Warehouse activities at the Food Bank of the Southern Tier. This is no easy feat, especially during a pandemic.

Before March 15, it was not uncommon for a bulk of our 55,000 square foot Warehouse to be stocked with non-perishable food items, but as the supply chain issues across the globe began to impact grocery and food products in New York State, the Food Bank Warehouse team had to pivot in more ways than one.

“As news spread about the pandemic’s impact on the non-perishable supply chain, we knew that we needed to adjust our expectations and methods of distribution, starting with the food product we were receiving,” reflected David Patterson, Warehouse Operations Director.

The team’s prediction was correct. Upon New York State’s shutdown, the warehouse observed a 300 percent increase in demand, but normal shelf-stable orders were canceled because there simply was not enough supply.

“At first, we could fulfill emergency box orders with what we had in stock and with the support of our volunteers, but very quickly we knew we would have to close in-house volunteer shifts to keep everyone safe. This caused us to develop Food Hub partners, where volunteers packed non-perishables for emergency requests off-site,” shared Dave.

In addition, the team turned to government programs like The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), that supplies no-cost USDA food product, and Nourish New York. Both programs provided perishable food items, like meat, dairy, and produce, leading the Warehouse team to shift how food was stored and distributed.

“Our 10,000 square foot refrigerator and freezer was simply not enough to handle the produce, meat, and dairy,” said Dave. “So, we rented a refrigeration trailer to help provide extra space.”

While the Food Bank’s goal is to encourage a selection of choice, social distancing guidelines lead the team to move away from Mobile Food Pantries and transition into distributing the perishable items quickly through Community Food Distributions.

“Our 90 Mobile Food Pantry locations allowed individuals to walk up and select the items they wanted. We also were able to offer it in more rural locations, because we serve between 80 – 175 households at a Mobile Food Pantry. However, with traditional walk-up Mobile Food Pantries shutting down, we needed to scale our operation to serve more households, which lead us to serving 500 families at 10 Community Food Distribution locations across the service area,” explained Dave.

Initially, the Warehouse team felt the weight of the 300 percent increase, without expanding the number of staff, but as time continued on, it was vital to bring on an extra driver and warehouse support to help the team process upwards of 117,000 lbs. of food each day.

In September, the shelves that remained bare for months began to refill with pantry staples. At the same time, the team has learned much during this unprecedented period.

“I am very fortunate to be part of a great team who has rallied around each other to get through the tough periods, but this work has been done by more than just our team, including all my Food Bank colleagues, our agency and food hub partners, our volunteers, and our donors. Every person played a vital part to our success,” said Dave.

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