Maria Vazquez needs 10 to 15 gallons of whole milk to make quesos. She’s been making and selling them for years in Immokalee, Florida, as a source of income. She takes full-time care of her young son with Down Syndrome, so selling quesos helps her make ends meet since her job opportunities are limited. Vazquez normally doesn’t have a problem gathering ingredients, but she has spent two weeks trying to find one gallon of whole milk across Immokalee to no avail. She has tried the Family Dollar, convenience stores, the locally owned grocery stores within a mile walking radius, and even the local food pantry at Misión Peniel, but none have milk. She says she will have to improvise cooking whatever is available and try to sell it.
“This is a time of scarcity, a time of hunger,” Vazquez said. “But, we need to carry on. We have to keep persevering and find what is available.”
The scarcity results from a nationwide food and supply shortage caused by the widespread Omicron variant. Grocery store workers and truck drivers have had to call out sick en masse while employees are being pushed to leave grueling work conditions aggravated by capitalist interests during the pandemic, forming part of the Great Resignation. According to Jim Dudlicek, the director of communications and external affairs for the National Grocers Association, a recent survey showed that many of its member retail and wholesale grocers have been operating their stores with 50% of their normal workforce during surges of the pandemic. The issue is now exacerbated by 30-year high inflation with consumer prices 6.2% higher than they were this time last year. As prices soar, more people are turning to food pantries as an alternative to feed themselves and their families. But with a growing shortage, people facing food insecurity are seeing the biggest impact as the food pantries they rely on start to run out of supplies and food.
“We are the safety net, there’s not a lot else besides us,” said Brett Meredith, CEO of Community Food Bank of Central Alabama, which provides food to about 260 pantries across the 12 counties it serves.
Food pantries and food banks, which supply products to pantries, had already been seeing a profound increase in demand since the start of the pandemic. According to Victoria Lasavath at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, distribution was 145% more in April 2020 than it was before the pandemic. Before the pandemic hit, the food bank would serve about 300,000 families in a month, and now they serve 900,000 a month, almost 10% of the LA County population.
Meredith says they first started noticing a food shortage in Alabama 18-20 months ago. To ensure they don’t run out of food, they are trying to anticipate what they will need 10 to 12 weeks in advance. This is in stark contrast to their usual ordering pattern when they ordered four-to-six weeks ahead. Most of their supply comes from the USDA and 40% comes from bulk-supply stores like Sam’s Club or Costco, but many of those wholesalers are also struggling to get product. He says canned vegetables have been particularly difficult to source.
“Hopefully by the time we get to that three months, we already have the product in hand that we need,” Meredith said. “The overall goal is to serve the people who are in need in our communities. It’s important that we are able to adapt and change to the circumstances.”
According to Randy Yarbrough, the executive director of Community Kitchens of Birmingham Southside, a soup kitchen that receives products from the Community Food Bank of Alabama, proteins, paper products, and napkins have been scarce.
“Most of the people who come to our soup kitchen don’t have cars and they get around by bus so they couldn’t even get to food pantries that they use to make ends meet because they had no transportation,” Yarbrough said. “When they get there, there’s certain things they’re going to be short on. It affects the style of food that they might get as well as the quality.”
In Immokalee, many of the people who frequent the Misión Peniel food pantry are migrant farmworkers. The average Immokalee farmworker currently makes less than $12,000 a year, and the average rate is 50 cents for every 32-pounds of tomatoes they pick. Immokalee, which means “my home” in the Mikasuki language, is a victim of one of the greatest ironies in this country. Despite Immokalee’s farmworkers supplying two-thirds of America’s wintertime tomatoes, their community is considered a food desert since it lacks access to affordable produce, grains, milk, and food that make up a healthy diet.
In Immokalee, where 37.4% of its population lives in poverty, many locals like Vazquez can only walk to get around since they may be undocumented or unable to afford a car. The only available food within a mile radius of Immokalee comes from Family Dollar, convenience stores, and a Mexican grocery store where prices are currently 25% higher than a Winn-Dixie on the outskirts of town. Now, prices are even higher. According to Miguel Estrada, who runs the Misión Peniel pantry, people in Immokalee are facing an issue that is unfortunately familiar for them.
“Food is already not abundant for the farmworkers here,” Estrada said. “When you add it in the pandemic, the needs increase and make things harder for everyone.”
In the backyard of Misión Peniel is “Cultivate Abundance,” a community garden started by Rick and Ellen Burnette, who have spent three decades addressing food insecurity and other livelihood challenges in low-income, migrant farmworker communities. The gardeners plant culturally appropriate crops like yuca, Haitian basket-vine, chayamansa, and okra—items members of their community frequently use in their cooking.
“What I hear most of all from my people here in Immokalee is how expensive everything has gotten. I feel the same way,” said Lupita Vazquez-Reyes, community garden and outreach manager for Cultivate Abundance. “What I find is that many of them rely heavily on food pantries and each other. From our garden, we are able to connect with those efforts by providing access to culturally appropriate and nutrient-dense greens.”
Volunteers, including Maria Vazquez, harvest the produce weekly and form part of the pantry’s distribution every Friday afternoon. For Vazquez, the garden is a source of food autonomy that she would like to have for herself if her rental space were not so limited and her landlord allowed it. For now, she must reckon with the shortage her community is facing. According to Estrada, they are currently seeing a shortage in milk, rice, and beans.
“The path in front of us is not really encouraging because people are running out of other services,” Estrada said. “Unfortunately, those who are working hard to put the food that we enjoy on our tables have nothing to eat on their own.”