At a time when its services are needed more than ever, the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank is facing its own food shortage.

Mike Manning, president of the food bank, said its usual sources of food for the needy in 11 parishes are drying up, as residents stock up their refrigerators and shelves at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Our inventory is down significantly," Manning said Thursday. "We're looking at a few weeks left of food, unless we can find relief from the federal government and Feeding America," a national network of more than 200 food banks. 

Major grocery stores and national food manufacturers provide much of the perishable and non-perishable food that stocks the nonprofit food bank's 172,000-square-foot warehouse on South Choctaw Drive, Manning said. 

The Food Bank also receives shipments of food from the Chicago-based nonprofit organization Feeding America. The local food bank, a United Way agency, is also able to make food purchases through Feeding America at closer to wholesale prices. 

But all of that is threatened right now, with nationwide stockpiling at homes leaving not much extra for food banks, Manning said. 

Feeding America is "having problems buying food and shipping to us," he said.

"This started probably in mid-March," Manning said. "We had orders placed in early March, but they were canceled."

From its location on South Choctaw, the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank runs a major warehouse operation that, in normal times, delivers food to 110 community agencies, mostly faith-based and run by volunteers, that, in turn, give the food to the needy.

Every year, the Food Bank gets food to 80,000 to 100,000 people in East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Pointe Coupee, Iberville, Ascension, Assumption, St. James, Livingston, St. Helena, East Feliciana and West Feliciana parishes. 

But many of the faith-based food pantries, often staffed by volunteers, are temporarily closing under the threat of the virus, Manning said, and Food Bank staff has started distributing at those closed sites with drive-thru setups. 

The Louisiana National Guard has begun assisting at those sites and is also helping box up items at the Food Bank warehouse in Baton Rouge, with staff taking on other duties and the number of volunteers reduced, Manning said.  

On Friday, the Food Bank, with the help of the National Guard, distributed groceries in St. James Parish to pre-registered clients of the Word Teaching Ministries' food pantry, which has recently closed out of concern for the safety of pantry volunteers.

Food was also distributed to clients who normally receive groceries through the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank's monthly mobile distribution program in St. James Parish, as well as to clients who receive the food bank's grocery distributions quarterly, through the St. James Parish government.  

In total on Friday, the Food Bank provided food to 200 people in St. James Parish, with each receiving a 30-pound box of dry goods, 36 pounds of produce and 25 pounds of protein.

Manning said the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank will also be looking at ways it can get food to those in the service sector who have lost their jobs during the coronavirus shutdown of businesses. 

"They're the new people in need, until they start getting benefits," he said. 

Asked if the Food Bank might be in danger of closing, Manning said, "We have to stay open; we're the last line."

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