Food Distribution Division meets challenge of getting more food to more people

by | Dec 24, 2020

To say the NCDA&CS Food Distribution Division has had two monumental years may seem like a bit of exaggeration. The numbers make it clear though.

Division director Gary Gay says the division has nearly doubled the amount of food its moved through its warehouses in the past two years. Some of the increase obviously came before the coronavirus pandemic, and then response to the pandemic put the division’s staff into overdrive even more. The logistics of handling nearly twice as much food has indeed been a monumental undertaking. Gay says it’s the challenge of his career, and that’s saying a lot. He’s been with NCDA for 36 years, with 31 of those in the Food Distribution Division.

“It’s definitely been the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced, and I’ve been through a lot of things,” Gay said, mentioning that managing food shipments in the the aftermath of hurricanes has been a major obstacle in the past.

In the ’17-’18 fiscal year, Food Distribution received and shipped out $66 million worth of food to food banks, soup kitchens, schools and other agencies with nutrition programs. In ’18-’19, the division handled $85 million in food value. Then in ’19-’20, which ended June 30, the food value number jumped to $129 million – a 195 percent increase from two years earlier.

This time lapse video shows the Butner Food Distribution warehouse on a typical day from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Gay said one example of the increase can be seen in the division’s shipments to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina’s Raleigh warehouse. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the division sent about 25 trucks of food to the Raleigh warehouse. In more recent months, the division has been sending about 100 trucks per month.

“We’ve relied heavily on the NCDA for that shelf stable food, and they’ve started sending produce also, which is great,” said Carter Crain, Director of Food Partnerships with the Food Bank. “It’s a big part – about 15 to 20 percent – of what we’re doing. It’s also first quality [so there’s no need for extra staff to sort it].”

File photo inside a Food Distribution warehouse

The staff of the Food Distribution Division has had to manage all the additional receiving, storing and transporting of food with about the same amount of people. The structure of a state agency doesn’t have the flexibility to quickly add staffing, Gay explained. Nonetheless, some part time workers have been added in the past two years, including in the months since the pandemic began. However, COVID-19 has chipped away at the staffing level. Some workers have been out for days after having COVID symptoms and needing testing. At times, multiple workers have been out at once as they all awaited test results for days.

Starting in November, the division has used 11 truck drivers from the Forest Service Division and a rotating crew of 18 National Guard members in the division’s two warehouses. Gay said the Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Programs Division stepped in to help coordinate the staffing.

“Commissioner [Steve] Troxler, [Chief Deputy Commissioner] David Smith and [Assistant Commissioner] Sandy Stewart have been involved all along as well,” Gay said. “All of our employees have been great with their back against the wall. It’s been a great team. Food Distribution could not have done this by ourselves.”

An NCDA&CS Food Distribution trucks drops off TEFAP commodities to food banks, schools, soup kitchens and other hunger-relief sites.
An NCDA&CS Food Distribution truck drops off TEFAP commodities to food banks, schools, soup kitchens and other hunger-relief sites.

What’s behind the surge in food distribution
The two-year surge at the Food Distribution warehouses is rooted in changes to foreign trade. As the United States and other countries tried to work out trading practices they deemed fair, some countries cut off, or significantly reduced, trade with the U.S. The trade mitigation meant a big drop in American commodities being exported. So in an effort to help American farmers, USDA began to buy the food and put it into the USDA nutrition program. With more USDA commodities going to food banks, soup kitchens, schools and other agencies, the Food Distribution Division was the “middle man” tasked with receiving that food and redistributing it.

Then this spring, federal lawmakers passed two stimulus bills to help Americans deal with the effects of the pandemic. Part of those bills called for USDA to send more food to people in need across the country.

“Our food pantries pretty quickly realized we were seeing more people,” Crain said, adding that the Food Bank has seen a 38% increase in people receiving food assistance this year.

Crain said at the beginning of the pandemic response, the Food Bank was able to receive a lot of excess food from restaurant suppliers (e.g., US Foods, Sysco, farmers, etc.) that had already ordered food stock for their kitchens but then had to close their dining rooms. When that excess began to dry up, more USDA food coming through the NCDA was welcomed.

Also welcomed was the logistical help that the Food Distribution Division provided, Crain said. For example, Food Distribution was able to break up shipments or hold them if the Food Bank needed time to free up space. The partnership has helped the Food Bank in its mission.

The Food Bank is never able to meet all the need in the region, so the staff is motivated to maximize any opportunities for additional food distribution. This year, that has meant finding even more agencies with which to share food. The Food Bank has vetted dozens more agencies to get food to more people in North Carolina, and now the organization supplies 250 agencies with food.

“Food Distribution has definitely helped us adjust and make things work. We feel fortunate for the partnership, not just in getting the food, but the logistics,” Crain said. “We know Gary and his team are always thinking about this food and where it’s going.”