Food supply chain grows increasingly fragile

Retail industry strained, free food programs stay one step ahead.

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The storeroom shelves at Reliable Market. – Lexi Pline

Grocers around the country are crossing their fingers whenever they open up a trailer full of food, because they aren’t sure what they might find.

With restaurants and schools shuttered, two of the three main food supply chains are non-existent, causing a major disruption in how food gets from manufacturer to retailer.

“What’s going on with the manufacturing end is really tough for me,” said Steve Bernier, owner of Cronig’s Market. “It’s really hard at the end of that chute, right before that food is handed to the customer.”–

According to Bernier, the kink in the supply chain to retail food stores does not deal with the amount of food that is available — it’s the ability for manufacturers to process and package the food, and for distributors to get the resources where they need to go.

And instead of sending food to schools and restaurants, Bernier said both of those channels are being funneled directly into retail food stores, but the processing and distribution elements can’t keep up with the supply or the demand.

Looking ahead, Bernier said not only does the Island have the impacts of the pandemic slamming retail grocery stores to be concerned about, but also the added stress of summer on the Vineyard.

“Let’s hope we don’t have another round of coronavirus, we don’t have any time to plan or prepare for that,” Bernier said. “This timing is very poor, we have the summer unfolding in front of us, and I’m not sure what is going to happen with that.”

Bernier said he hasn’t seen any fallout in the meat department quite yet, although he noted his concern over the Smithfield Foods plant shutting its doors due to a massive wave of COVID-19 spreading through its employees.

Bernier said the delivery trailers are coming regularly, but he is never sure that what he ordered will be on them.

“We have half-full trailers coming, and we are often being told that the warehouse can’t fulfill our order within 24 hours, so some food is taking an extra day to get here,” Bernier said. “Every trailer that comes, it’s a surprise to us what’s not there.”

Bernier asked his loyal Island customers to remain calm, and avoid overbuying or hoarding. He said it’s important for people to buy groceries for at least one or two weeks, so as to avoid frequent trips, but insisted that hoarding puts unneeded additional strain on the supply chain.

In a time when the supply chain to retail food stores is so out of whack, Bernier said Cronig’s is ordering whatever it can get its hands on at the time. 

“The biggest challenge is behind us I hope, but there is no way of knowing because we have no experience to lean on — nothing like this has ever happened of this magnitude,” Bernier said.

In the next few weeks, Bernier said things could get worse, although he holds great confidence in the Island community. 

“We could be not far from the edge of the cliff where everything could go out the window, but we need to remain sensible and work together, because you never know what’s coming on the next trailer,” Bernier said.

Bob Pacheco, owner of Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs, said his stock is doing fine for the time being, but he isn’t sure about what it will look like in a month.

Certain items such as dairy, paper goods, and cleaning and sanitation supplies are “a bit light” Pacheco said, but continued on to say that Reliable customers are being understanding and appreciative.

Reliable Market is using secondary suppliers in place of some of their main suppliers, but so far is in “pretty good shape.”

“We have our own trucks so we do our transport ourselves, we make our Steamship reservations ourselves, so we are pretty independent, but we have always done in that way,” Pacheco said.

According to Pacheco, the folks at Reliable are taking everything “day by day,” and assessing what stock is in good order, and what needs to be ordered.

“Who knows what might happen? Who could have possibly thought a month ago that we would be in the position we are in today? Where we are going to be a month from now, I have no idea,” Pacheco said.

Food bank supplies

Whereas retail food stores rely on their various individual suppliers to get product, benevolent food charities and donation programs on-Island receive much of their food from the Greater Boston Food Bank. 

The Good Shepherd Parish’s Food Baskets MV is a drive-up food donation program directed by Joe Capobianco. 

According to Capobianco, the Greater Boston Food Bank is fully stocked on most products, besides some staples like peanut butter and rice, and he doesn’t see a problem in the near future.

“As of today, we have no problem. We just picked up 4,000 pounds of food for our Saturday food drive. We are getting ready to pick up 10,000 pounds for the following week,” Capobianco said. 

The only thing Capobianco said is “completely dried up” is the excess meat and produce that large off-Island grocery stores sometimes give to the food bank after it’s past its best-by date.

“After the food is past its date, they freeze it right away and send it off, but that hasn’t happened recently,” Capobianco said.

The main issue for free food programs on Martha’s Vineyard, according to Capobianco, is getting the food here and to the public in a timely manner. 

“We are absolutely staying one step ahead of everything. We are ordering all our food ahead of time and making sure we don’t fall behind,” Capobianco said.

Often leaving at the break of dawn to pick up the food and bring it to the Island, Capobianco said, “It’s a long day, but it’s well worth it. I enjoy what I am doing, and Food Baskets MV is going to keep on going,” he said.

Food Baskets MV holds their distribution every Saturday at the Good Shepherd Parish Center in Edgartown, from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm.

Another strong Island support network is the Island Food Pantry, run by executive director Kayte Morris.

Morris said the Greater Boston Food Bank is an affiliate organization of Feeding America, which is one of the country’s largest nonprofits and food equity organizations.

With so much excess food being redirected away from restaurants and schools, Morris noted the importance of capturing that food that may otherwise be destined for the trash.

“There is so much food that we can utilize that would normally be sent to restaurants and schools. We have a steady stream of food, but what kind of food we get could be different,” Morris said.

She explained the necessary quantity of food is available, but the channels that it takes to reach hungry Islanders needs to be adjusted.

“The problem is not that there aren’t enough eggs available, it’s that the cartons don’t exist. The supply chain needs to catch up to itself in order to get these products packaged and get the food where it needs to go,” Morris said.

Across the board, food access programs on Martha’s Vineyard are seeing a drastic increase in the number of people served, Morris said. 

In February, Morris said the Island Food Pantry served more than 1,200 Islanders, and this month, they are seeing double those numbers.

“We are seeing five times more new families coming to the food pantry than we did before, it’s totally unprecedented,” Morris said. “But we are continuing to provide for the community and are in good shape.”

The Island Food Pantry is open at the Christ United Methodist “Stone” Church in Vineyard Haven, on Saturday 10 am to 12 pm, and Monday and Wednesday from 2 pm to 4 pm.

1 COMMENT

  1. Oh my! We’re going to have to wait an extra day or two for our favorite brie. These are truly dark times we live in.

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