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Charlotte-area food pantries short on items as food prices surge

Volunteers Jared Spears, left, and Sam McAllister guide a cart full of groceries out of the Cooperative Christian Ministry food bank in Concord, N.C. on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
Nick de la Canal
Volunteers Jared Spears, left, and Sam McAllister guide a cart with groceries out of the Cooperative Christian Ministry food pantry in Concord, N.C. on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. Both were part of a team of volunteers helping with the nonprofit's weekly drive-thru food pantry.

Behind a small brick office front in Indian Trail is a small warehouse with shelves stacked to the ceiling with boxes and shipping pallets. On one side, pushed against the wall, two walk-in freezers hum a low tone.

"This is where we pack up the food that goes out to families," Keith Adams said as he navigated through the boxes.

This warehouse, he said, helps supply about a dozen food pantries around Union County operated by the nonprofit Common Heart. Adams is the nonprofit's executive director.

Normally, these shelves are fully stocked with canned goods, bread and other staples, but on this tour, they looked more like the shelves you'd see at the grocery store, with bare spots here and there. Adams walked up to one shelf that was empty.

"This is where green beans usually go," he said, smacking his hand on the empty board. "So we got no green beans."

Beside that was another bare shelf meant for corn. None of that today either. The only canned vegetables in stock were chipotle peppers, tomatoes, okra, sliced beets and olives.

The warehouse was also running low on cereal, Adams said. They were also having trouble finding turkeys and stuffing ahead of Thanksgiving, and they were far from the only pantry having trouble staying stocked.

The Cooperative Christian Ministry food pantry in Concord was also running low on some basic items during a drive-through food pantry event on Friday.

Concord Food Pantry.jpg
Nick de la Canal
The Cooperative Christian Ministry food pantry in Concord, N.C.

Volunteers pushed shopping carts laden with groceries into a parking lot, where they loaded up cars lined up to receive the food.

The ministry's food program manager, Kris Edscorn, said they had run out of green beans and peanut butter, and he found that puzzling.

"That's very unusual," Edscorn said. "Usually, green beans are one of the things that people donate a lot of. We almost always have a large supply of green beans, and we are completely out right now."

He said the pantry had also run low on soup, cereal, and another pantry staple — rice. Edscorn said one reason might be that some of the big local food drives hadn't yet returned from the pandemic.

"We've had some big food drives in the past — the county fair food drive, the Bell Game food drive — that haven't happened this year," he said. "The county fair got canceled, so that's kind of hurt us a little bit."

Another reason might be that those products have just become harder to find everywhere. Food pantries are in some ways at the very end of the supply chain — even after consumers.

The products that don't sell at supermarkets, or the products people decide to clear out from their kitchen cabinets are often the products that get donated. But nowadays, between supply chain shortages and rising food prices, both grocery stores and consumers have less food to donate, even as pantries have begun seeing a growing demand.

A person waits forfood at the Feed My Lambs food pantry in Anson County, N.C., on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
Nick de la Canal
A person waits for food at the Feed My Lambs food pantry in Anson County, N.C., on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.

This is something Kay Carter has been experiencing. She's the CEO of the regional Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina. It supplies food to local pantries in 24 countries across North and South Carolina.

"You also have transportation challenges right now," she said. "Getting products shipped has become more difficult at this very moment in time."

This means some food pantries will have to make some adjustments, especially for the holidays.

For example, Keith Adams with the Common Heart food pantry network in Union County said he had planned to assemble 1,500 turkey dinners for the nonprofit's annual Thanksgiving event, but his usual suppliers couldn't guarantee they could fill his order.

So Adams had to find a substitute for the organization's "Great Turkey Countdown."

"It's now 'Hamming it up in 2021'" he said, "and we're providing hams instead of turkeys because we can get our hands on those, and we are offering a limited number of turkeys for folks that are unable to eat ham."

The hams will be cheaper, he said, and his staff is also eliminating fruit cocktails and cream of mushroom soup to keep costs down. Even still, it will cost Common Heart $40 per dinner this year instead of the $30 last year.

Adams said he was confident the hams would work out, but as of Thursday he still wasn't 100% sure. His supplier, he said, had still not confirmed his order.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal