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Maryland Food Bank continues to serve amid surging demand and squeezed supply chain

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Middle River resident John Hejl volunteered about seven hours a week at the Maryland Food Bank in Halethorpe.

The 57-year-old had worked Monday and Friday mornings nearly every week since around 2011, after reading a news article that the food bank needed volunteers to sort salvage at Christmastime.

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For the past two months, the retired National Security Agency employee has spent, on average, four days a week in the Maryland Food Bank’s warehouse, where he prefers to volunteer unpacking boxed items onto a conveyor belt for 25 other volunteers — standing 6 feet apart — to sort into boxes.

“They’re trying to get me down to three days a week,” Hejl said, laughing. “They just don’t want to overwork me. I keep on telling ‘em, this is the best thing for me, to keep busy.”

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Hejl and others are filling the staffing gaps at the food bank when corporate partners that once provided the majority of volunteers from their pool of employees, pulled them back as Gov. Larry Hogan began issuing restrictive orders in mid-March, and businesses began directing staff members to work from home.

“I just saw a need and said … I have the time, I have the ability,” Hejl said in between loading food onto the conveyor belt.

The Maryland Food Bank, which distributes groceries at 1,200 sites, including to 43 organizations and 147 distribution sites in Baltimore County, is facing the same problems as food banks across the nation: a constrained supply chain, surging demand and higher food costs amid a sharp decline in food donations.

“The volunteer network has stepped up very nicely,” CEO Carmen Del Guercio said. “There are a lot of people who have never been here before.”

With fewer hours at her day job, 20-year-old Jessica Daffin began volunteering regularly in mid-March. She has given about 30 hours of her time since she began, working in various capacities in the warehouse and packaging frozen beef and poultry in the freezer.

She tries to come in every weekday morning, but says often, the time slots are already full.

Prior to the pandemic, one in four Marylanders were facing food insecurity, according to the food bank.

“Obviously, this has gone way up,” the Odenton resident said. “These operations here can’t stop, even throughout all of this madness."

To adhere to social-distancing guidelines, fewer volunteers are being scheduled to sort food in the warehouse, package products like French lentils and red quinoa, and put together the 3,600 meals and snack packs that go out from the kitchen every day, many of which go to school distribution sites in Baltimore County.

With volunteer slots booked for the duration of May, the challenge now “is our ability to support the demand,” Del Guercio said.

In April, the Food Bank supplied 61% more groceries to its 350 partner organizations than in April 2019.

Cockeysville-based Baltimore Hunger Project was once feeding 648 students in 24 Baltimore City and county schools. Every Friday, it would supply bagged meals to students through guidance counselors to sustain students over the weekend, said founder and executive director Lynne B. Kahn.

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Now, the nonprofit is feeding more than 2,300 children at food distribution sites in the city and county on Wednesdays and Fridays. In six weeks, the Baltimore Hunger Project has given 42,000 pounds of food to children.

“We always knew this was a problem — childhood hunger, specifically — and how many children rely on food at their schools,” especially through free and reduced meal programs no longer being offered amid statewide school closures, Kahn said.

“But now, everybody knows,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Kahn would order approximately 8,000 pounds of groceries from the food bank every three weeks.

Now, she’s buying food through the food bank’s purchasing program at approximately $1 a pound every Wednesday.

Kahn sources about 15% of the Baltimore Hunger Project’s food from the Maryland Food Bank, she estimates, but because of supply chain constraints, limits have been placed on certain food items.

Canned protein foods like beef lasagna or franks and beans, a staple in meals packed by the Hunger Project, are capped at 10 cans per each item a week, Kahn said.

“Right now, the supply chain is the biggest challenge, it’s been so compromised,” Del Guercio said.

The food bank sources directly from food manufacturers and distributors, but every link in the supply chain, from farm to manufacturing to truck deliveries, has been affected, Del Guercio said.

To ensure partnering nonprofits have equitable access to food items, the food bank has had to limit certain items, a consideration that varies from week to week depending on what is delivered, Del Guercio said.

“We’re not immune to that even as a food bank,” he said. “We still are suffering those same dynamics” playing out in groceries stores, where nonperishables and other supplies have been scarcer.

That’s also led to higher prices the food bank pays to purchase items, the cost of which has risen between 20% and 30%, Del Guercio said.

Where they once spent $220,000 per month on food, the nonprofit has had to pay $3.5 million in the past month, he said.

But, “We can still buy cheaper than what you can buy at the grocery store,” Del Guercio said.

Despite the added multimillion dollar expense, the Food Bank is making those purchased items available for free to its partners through its donated food program, Del Guercio said.

The food bank also has rolled out new programs amid the pandemic, like 30-pound “back up boxes” of easily transportable, shelf-stable food, nearly 1,400 of which are packed daily at a donated warehouse in Lansdowne.

The nonprofit hired 25 temporary, full-time employees, many who had previously lost their jobs due to coronavirus, to pack the boxes, Del Guercio said.

Del Guercio told the Baltimore Sun Editorial Board in April that he estimates the Food Bank will need to raise $12 million just to get through the next 90 days.

But monetary donations — which the food bank says go further in supplying food than individuals’ donated items — have remained strong, Del Guercio said.

There has been “a tremendous response from corporate, institutional and individual” donors, Del Guercio said. “People have really stepped up in a big way.”

Those donations will be “hugely important” even as the pandemic subsides and the economy starts to reopen, Del Guercio said.

“This problem is going to be lingering for some time,” he said.

More than 387,000 Marylanders have filed for unemployment insurance since the beginning of March.

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“They’re not going to go back to work overnight,” Del Guercio said. “The dollars we are able to raise today are not only helping us for the short term … but we anticipate having a need well after this is over.”

To donate to the Maryland Food Bank, go to https://mdfoodbank.org/donate/.

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