The Complex Emergency Food System: Feeding America, Food Banks and Food Pantries

The emergency food system in the US is a complex system of food sources and distribution networks. This link is a great resource for an overall explanation of how the Feeding America food bank network functions across the country.

This post is a necessarily simplified version that explains specifically how food comes to Loudoun Hunger Relief.

LHR is different from most of the pantries in our region. Most of the food we have to distribute is rescued from grocery stores and farmers markets, or grown for donation on local farms. We rely less on USDA food supplies than many other pantries in our region.

In normal times, LHR gets between 50% and 60% of the food we have from grocery store rescue. This is generally short date food, or food from restocks, that grocery stores would otherwise throw away. LHR picks up from nearly 30 local grocery stores plus two farmers markets every week. We are so grateful to have these donations. We also pick up from two donation only farms every week, which provides us with fresh picked local produce during the growing season. It doesn’t get any fresher!

The balance of the food we have comes from  purchasing (financed by community monetary donations), individual and food drive donations, and USDA and other food from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, our Food Bank partner.

Since Loudoun Hunger Relief relies so heavily on rescued food, we must go through every load of donations cull out anything of questionable quality. This is a labor intensive process executed by our trained volunteers who try very hard to get it right. It’s an ongoing challenge, and we strive to do better every day.

At the beginning of the COVID emergency, the grocery stores had very little to offer to us, and our food supply shifted heavily to what we were able to purchase. With the supply chain more stable, our purchasing is now focused primarily on fresh foods that are not generally donated, such as milk, eggs, and some meats, and things like allergy friendly items and personal hygiene supplies.

As we move through 2021, our purchasing needs continue to exceed $35,000 each month as we continue to serve nearly 700 families each week. This compares to $70,000 annually pre-pandemic.

Thank you for helping us do this critical work.


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