URBANA, Ill. — Food banks help alleviate food insecurity, and their contribution has become increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Food banks receive supplies from many sources, including major food retailers, but little is known about their role in the food supply chain.
A team of researchers received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study the relationship among food retailers, food banks and food security.
“In this innovative project, we intend to figure out how the retail food sector intersects with the charitable food assistance sector. In other words, how the retail food sector supplies food to food bank,” said Craig Gundersen, distinguished professor of agricultural and consumer economics in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois and co-principal investigator on the project.
Gundersen said food banks get their supplies from different sources. They purchase items such as rice, beans, fruits and vegetables at discounted rates from wholesalers. They also receive donations from individuals, as well as from major retailers such as Walmart or Meijer.
The grant project will study how food retailers’ decisions to discount, donate, or discard perishable food products affect food banks. The researchers will combine retail scanner data with data on food bank donations and food insecurity data generated by Feeding America through their Map the Meal Gap data initiative.
Gundersen works with Feeding America as lead researcher on MMG, which provides detailed data on local, regional and national food insecurity. He developed data collection methods and models to estimate food-insecurity rates that comprise the MMG reports.
“Understanding the relationship between the retail food sector and the food banks is especially important during COVID-19,” Gundersen said.
“The pandemic has increased food insecurity and also strained the food supply chains with occasional food shortages in retail stores. If the retail food sector is running low on food, it also means food banks are running low on food.”
Timothy Richards at Arizona State University leads the grant project, which includes researches from Illinois, The Ohio State University and California Polytechnic State University.
The study aims to further understanding of food banks in relation to the food retail industry, food waste and food security and to provide policy recommendations on how to support and strengthen the interaction between food retailers and food banks.