December 10, 2018

An odd effect of the trade war: Food banks will get a lot more food, and they need a way to cool it a lot more food, and they need a way to cool it


President Donald Trump wanted to revive the U.S. steel industry. And, in a surprise result, food banks will need more refrigerators.

All conflicts create unforeseeable effects and the nation’s food banks are now grappling with one from the trade war that unfolded this year between the U.S. and other countries, primarily China.

After China retaliated against U.S. steel tariffs with barriers to U.S. food, the Trump administration set up a $12 billion program to help American farmers who are losing an export market. Part of that aid package included the purchase of $1.2 billion in U.S. meat and produce affected by tariffs. The government plans to distribute that food to food banks around the country.

In Minnesota, the amount of food housed and distributed at food banks and similar facilities could double next year. And that infusion of fresh food, combined with a longer-term shift toward lean meat and vegetables at food banks, poses another challenge — keeping it cool.

“We need more cooling space in general, and sometimes we need specialized space as well,” said Thierry Ibri, chief operations officer at Second Harvest Heartland. “Some vegetables prefer a higher temperature, some vegetables prefer a lower temperature.”

Second Harvest is working to open a 233,000-square-foot location in Brooklyn Park where about 20,000 square feet will be dedicated to refrigerated or frozen storage. The warehouse in Brooklyn Park, Minn., should be fully operational in 2020. Refrigeration and freezing is expensive. “Certainly those are big-ticket items,” Ibri said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in August it will buy an estimated $558 million worth of pork, $93 million in apples and $85 million in dairy, among other things, from farmers affected by the trade war. The full list includes rice, potatoes, pistachios, walnuts, oranges, grapes and cranberries.

Distributing that food around the country will more than double the amount of food coming to Minnesota under the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program, said Colleen Moriarty, the executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, which is the federal government’s administrative partner in the state.

In typical years, Hunger Solutions distributes about 10 million pounds of food. The farm-aid package will send an extra 12 million pounds of food to Minnesota over the next 12 months.

“We haven’t handled that amount of food since 2008,” Moriarty said.

Moriarty said most of the perishable food Hunger Solutions will be distributed to 400 food shelves around the state is frozen, and though they hadn’t planned for the influx, they should be able to get most of it to hungry people.

“We’re really good at this,” she said. “We’re really good at working with the sites and with the banks.”

The food from the federal government comes with an added benefit for food shelves, too. It’s free. And that’s welcome, Moriarty said.

“Donations are down and corporations don’t make the mistakes they used to make, with mislabeled Cheerio boxes,” she said.

Though the majority of the food coming as part of the tariff relief package will be shelf stable, food banks have been shifting for years from canned and dry goods to fresh meat and vegetables, to try to reflect a balanced diet. Ten years ago, Ibri said, about 23 percent of the food Second Harvest distributed was fresh. Now it’s more than 50 percent.

That trend is reflected in the for-profit food business as well, and Bloomington-based Thermo King is one company benefiting from the shift. The company, which is a division of Ingersoll Rand, makes cooling systems for trucks and rail cars. While its financial results are not made public, President Ray Pittard said Thermo King’s growth is consistently outpacing the nation’s GDP growth.

The company has launched a philanthropic initiative called “We Move Food” that’s given $270,000 in grants and in-kind equipment to food banks around the country. Second Harvest received a trailer and new liftgate system.

Pittard said refrigerated transportation is critical not only in making use of the government-purchased food, but in limiting food waste in the world long-term.

“If you need oranges and fresh citrus, you’re never going to get that to Iowa, and if you need good beef, it’s hard to get that to Florida,” he said. “Often the biggest need isn’t in the city, it’s in small towns.”