Courtland “Court” Conner kept a careful eye on a camouflage backpack as it systematically shuffled down the line of volunteers. In under a minute, the wheeled bag was filled with enough packaged goods to last the weekend. The items, catered to a child’s liking, ranged from applesauce to raisins to Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli.
Gainesville nonprofit agency Catholic Charities has filled backpacks with these kinds of food for over 10 years, distributing them weekly to local elementary and middle school students in need. But amid grocery store shortages, supply chain disruptions and rising prices, the specific items this program depends on have become more challenging to obtain.
Conner, who took over the Weekend Hunger Backpack program nearly a year ago, is committed to making sure nearly 270 local children have reliable access to healthy, balanced food for the weekend. But she said the supplies donated to Catholic Charities only go so far, which forces the nonprofit to purchase the remaining items deemed essential for the backpacks.
The goal is to find nourishing, kid-friendly food at the most affordable price, she said. That’s why visiting Bread of the Mighty Food Bank is the first stop.
Bread of the Mighty is one of 12 food banks part of Feeding Florida, a partner organization of Feeding America. Feeding America oversees 200-plus food banks nationwide and works to facilitate partnerships with retailers, who donate their surplus goods for tax reductions. In addition to working with these entities, Florida food banks have contracts with farmers statewide.
The Gainesville-based food bank serves over 170 nonprofit agency programs in Alachua, Dixie, Gilchrist, Lafayette and Levy counties. These agencies can purchase brand name items, meat and produce for a price of 18 cents per pound, which is why Conner tries to shop there as often as possible.
“Sometimes I will go, and I’ll hit the jackpot,” she said. “I want it all. Cha-ching!”
Other times, the visit is less successful. The items included in the Weekend Hunger Backpack program must be packaged, relatively healthy and suitable for kids, which limits options.
With vastly cheaper prices than other suppliers, food banks are a go-to spot for many hunger relief programs.
But price increases and grocery store shortages serve as a reminder that the amount and type of product available at food banks is variable, said Raquel Simon-Petley, the director of advocacy and strategic planning at Feeding Florida.
“It’s a big ripple effect,” she said. “We’re seeing it across the state, and our Feeding America partners across the country are seeing it as well.”
This is why Conner visits Bread of the Mighty with hope, not expectations.
“I go to Bread of the Mighty with my fingers crossed that they have what I am looking for,” she said. “I don’t lean on them for what I need.”
After exhausting food donation and food bank avenues, the next step is to turn to more expensive retailers for bulk orders.
“What I spend at Bread of Mighty is probably three times cheaper than what I would spend at ALDI or Save A Lot,” Conner said.
In the past, she was able to order pallets of food from these retailers, but that’s changed. These retailers are experiencing supply chain issues of their own, so there’s no guarantee that orders can be fulfilled.
For example, Catholic Charities’ applesauce and juice orders in December were not completed, but that wouldn’t mean they would be missing from backpacks. To Conner, these fruit items are fundamental.
Conner said she begged Walmart to give her enough juice pouches last week and was willing to pay regular retail price at Publix as a last resort.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in their 2022 Food Price Outlook that grocery store prices increased by 3.5% in 2021, which has been linked to an increase in the need for food assistance.
In the hour it took to fill backpacks, Catholic Charities received three more requests for weekend food assistance. For many children, these bags are the only form of sustenance until their next school meal. That’s why the Weekend Hunger Backpack program has a commitment to quality and balance, despite price and access barriers.
“The kiddos come first,” Conner said. “They are most important.”