Thanksgiving starts in March for the nation’s food banks. Every spring, food banks around the country start placing orders for wholesale gobblers.
The Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) distributes around 140,000 turkeys and chickens for Thanksgiving, with a goal of purchasing only half of what they need. The other half comes from donations.
"Two to three months ago, we were worried. Donations were not coming as fast," Catherine D’Amato, president and CEO of the GBFB, told Supply Chain Dive. Fortunately, they came through.
Some businesses were cautious about committing to their donations. Mergers and acquisitions? A manufacturer goes out of business? That all impacts the donations, as do natural disasters and weather. A tragedy in one part of the country can affect the nation’s food supply.
Planning distributions based on donations
Donations from businesses are imperative, said Cheryl Schondek, vice president of food acquisition and supply chain at GBFB, who works with manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers to lock down donations of birds and the appropriate holiday fixings.
Community food drives, while popular this time of year, bring in a very small percentage of the donated products, said Karen Hanner, vice president of manufacturing partnerships at Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks.
The Feeding America network distributes about 5 billion pounds of food a year. Of that, 3.5 billion has been rescued (not sellable, or close to expiration date), and only 700 million pounds are purchased by the network.
It’s harder to plan for holiday meals when relying on donated food. "We get a lot of the Thanksgiving food donations after the holiday," Hanner told Supply Chain Dive, though it’s then used for Christmas meals or given out during the rest of the year.
"If our donations drop, we’re not going to just buy everything. We still have the same purchasing budget."
Chief Operations Officer, Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma
People tend to be more generous this time of year, which helps with supply, said Steve Kullberg, chief operations officer of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. "One week we get a truckload of potatoes [donated], and the next week we buy those potatoes and drive them from Colorado or Arizona," he told Supply Chain Dive. Only about 14% of their food is typically purchased throughout the year, and the donated items vary greatly week to week.
Given how little is spent by food banks to purchase supplies, there’s a great need to watch every penny. Food banks buy their turkeys wholesale, but when it comes to Thanksgiving, this means they pay more per pound than many consumers pay for their birds at the grocery store.
In retail, turkeys are a loss leader. Consumers are paying around 59 cents a pound for their gobblers and filling their shopping carts with the remainder of needed holiday foods. The food banks buy the turkeys at competitive wholesale prices.This year, food banks are paying around 92 cents a pound, though in some years it’s as high as $1.30. Even a few pennies a pound makes a big difference when purchasing truckloads of turkeys.
Some food banks order turkeys through Feeding America, which places a collective order to obtain the best price. Participating food banks commit to their purchase in the spring, forecasting need based on the previous year’s orders, the number of families served and their budget. They also consider the local economy. By Oct. 10, turkeys started arriving at the food banks.
Forecasting and sourcing: It's not like industry
"I came from private industry where forecasting was huge," said Kullberg. "Here we don’t do a lot of forecasting." That’s because they don’t do a lot of purchasing. Their budget covers gaps. "If our donations drop, we’re not going to just buy everything. We still have the same purchasing budget."
There is never an issue with ordering too many turkeys, though. "When it comes to animal protein, the need is always higher than what we have available. It’s an expensive item," said Hanner.
When food banks have funds to buy additional protein, that money doesn’t go as far when purchasing meat, compared to buying peanut butter or tuna. Of the 5 billion pounds of food distributed by the Feeding America network, only 40 million of it is protein. While turkeys are a mainstay for the November holiday, they’re too big for some seniors and smaller families, who may get a chicken or a retailer gift card instead, to purchase smaller quantities.
Fruits and vegetables given out for Thanksgiving typically include onions, squash, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, apples and orange.
No matter the time of year, even donated produce has a cost. The food bank pays for harvesting and freight, said Kullberg, and freight is their largest expense, sometimes determining if they can ship produce from Wisconsin to Oklahoma, or if they can only afford to move in goods from Kansas or in-state.
Like other distribution centers, food banks often use warehouse management software with real time inventory visibility. Pantries can place their orders through web-based portals or ordering systems, based on what’s available.
Distribution depends on refrigeration
While many Americans are busy shopping for and preparing Thanksgiving meals this week, the food banks are winding down their holiday work. They started distributing food to pantries in early November and are mostly finished by the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
Those in need get their donated food from one of 60,000 food pantries or agencies, not the 200 food banks that supply them. Upon receipt of turkeys last Saturday, one of the GBFB’s partner agencies distributed holiday food packages to 1,000 families, with 50 to 60 pounds of food per family.
"There is such a focus on the Thanksgiving meal ... a sense of normalcy to a family who is facing something difficult."
Vice President of Manufacturing Partnerships, Feeding America
While many food banks can safely hold the frozen poultry and other temperature-sensitive goods for the month between acquisition and distribution, many pantries can’t. They don’t have the capacity to store many refrigerated or frozen items. Once they receive their shipment of turkeys, they need the families to take them home that day. The pantries might receive the nonperishable items earlier, to sort and pack the food kits.
Those at the food bank stress that they’re feeding people in need 365 days a year, and Thanksgiving Day is just one of them.
Thanksgiving is unique, though. It’s a food holiday, and no matter what culture, most in the United States celebrate the holiday — with turkey.
"We know how important it is to be able to provide the client with dignity and protect traditions important to their families," said Hanner. "That’s why there is such a focus on the Thanksgiving meal, something they can provide to their family, a sense of normalcy to a family who is facing something difficult."
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the amount of food rescued by Feeding America.