Ricardo Garcia has been managing Beyond Hunger’s food pantry, 848 Lake St., Oak Park, for seven years. He exudes the sort of unflappability that comes with years of experience, but rising food costs and supply chain issues have forced the veteran manager to shift his approach to stocking the pantry.
“My goal is to keep the promises we have made to the families that use the pantry and maintain the services we have been offering for so many years,” said Garcia, senior pantry programs manager.
Inflation has caused a surge in prices at the same time some food items are being rationed. Beyond Hunger provides a turkey for every client visiting the pantry in the days leading up to Thanksgiving and now those birds cost big bucks.
“Last year we were able to purchase turkeys for as low as $1.25 pound and this year some of the turkeys cost us as much as $1.85 per pound,” said Sarah Abboreno Corbin, Beyond Hunger communications manager.
Garcia noted the 60-cent swing may not seem like a “big deal,” but the price increase on turkeys alone accounted for a $12,000 increase in Beyond Hunger’s November budget. And the challenges don’t end there.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository used to be a place where Garcia could “log in and order anything he needed” in whatever quantity the pantry demanded. The pandemic, however, has made that process more complicated.
“We used to pay a discounted rate for food purchased through the Greater Chicago Food Depository, but now, thanks to funding the food we get from them is free,” said Garcia. “That is good news in some ways, but the bad news is many popular food items are being rationed.”
For example, in the past Garcia could order 20 cases of garbanzo beans to stock the pantry, but today he is limited to seven cases. As a result, Garcia must leverage relationships with other vendors to make up the difference. In April and May, when the pantry traffic is lighter, quantity restrictions were less impactful, but need jumps drastically in winter.
While Garcia cannot know who is who is going to visit the pantry until the moment they show up, he uses past data to help predict pantry traffic patterns. He anticipates Beyond Hunger will welcome 300 clients on Saturdays in November and December. Each client receives eight days’ worth of food when they visit the pantry at a savings of approximately $200 per month in out-of-pocket grocery expenditures.
“We have to piece things together to make sure everyone has access to everything they need,” said Garcia. “We are still focused on providing well-balanced and nutritious food, but we can’t go to one vendor to get everything we need.”
The changing dynamics have impacted Garcia’s decision making. While he has been focused on strengthening partnerships with Sysco and grocery chains involved in Beyond Hunger’s food rescue program, he has also shifted the percentages of donated versus purchased food used to stock the pantry. Beyond Hunger formerly kept a ratio of 60 percent purchased food to 40 percent donated goods; with rising food costs Beyond Hunger is now stocking the pantry with 70 percent donated items to 30 percent purchased foods.
“I had to switch my mentality to focus to procure what we need,” said Garcia. “That 30 percent is used to purchase produce and other loose ends and the rest of our stock comes from donations made by engaged community members and partners.”
The pantry offers a modified client choice model in their indoor pedestrian pantry and continues to offer the drive-thru model started during the pandemic. Garcia is quick to point out that 80 percent of clients still opt to use the drive-thru model to receive a fixed menu of items. The food items are packed in cardboard boxes that also have increasing costs tied to inflation.
“Each family receives two boxes of food in the drive through model, so we order 1,000 boxes every couple of weeks and the boxes are getting more expensive,” said Garcia. “Our vendor has honored the original price for now, but if this trend continues, we know those costs will go up, too.”
To help make up for inventory shortages, Beyond Hunger is looking to “harness the power of the community” by requesting donations of 10 specific shelf-stable food items that are in particularly high demand and difficult to source in ample quantities.
“I have a short-term memory when it comes to any stress around doing this job because it is so gratifying,” said Garcia. “It all disappears during the distribution process. There is a satisfaction that comes with seeing the gratitude for the services we provide. We are so grateful because none of this would be possible without our Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park community.”