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Can’t put a lid on it: Canning supplies run short in South Carolina during pandemic

Canning supplies shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic

Greenville resident Cindy Hosea spoons out some of her homemade fig preserves on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Hosea said she had to use the small jars because she could not find quart-size Ball jars anywhere.

Homebound and hungry, people across South Carolina have turned to canning during the pandemic lockdown this year. The result: It's difficult to find a sealing lid anymore.

Canning guru Reid Latham of Iva says interest in the hobby has surged since the coronavirus first prompted shutdowns last March. People he sells preserves to — he sold 400 jars of fig preserves, pear preserves and pear relish in the past month — can't find the all-important sealing lids at the usual places: Walmart, Dollar General, Ingles or Tractor Supply. Latham buys in bulk, 250 to 500 at a time, and so has not run out yet. But people call him all the time wanting spares, he said.

"I think it's got something to do with the virus going on," Latham said. 

The head of Clemson Extension Services at Clemson University, Tom Dobbins, reported the Ball jar shortage earlier this month during a trustees meeting at the university. Clemson Extension has offices around the state. The current popularity of canning prompted Clemson to organize an online canning seminar on Sept. 30, and the class was full within a day of setting it up. But organizers fear students won't have the supplies they need to follow along.

Home canners complain about Ball jar shortages on Facebook

In this Sept. 21, 2020, Facebook post from the parent company of Ball jars, home canners complain they cannot get the supplies they need to try out the company’s recipe. Complaints came in from across the country.

"You can't find a Ball jar anywhere," Dobbins said.

The Post and Courier reached out to Newell Brands, parent company of Ball and Kerr canning jars, but did not get a response.

On the company's Ball Jar Facebook page, the shortages are a common complaint and canners nationwide are taking it personally.

"Please make more lids! I have 9 wide lids left and 12 narrow and lots of things to can," wrote an Oregon woman on Facebook in response to a Ball Jar post on Monday about pickling cucumbers..

"Stop with this. I've written you myself. At least give us a reason or an update as to why there are no lids. Silence is bad company policy," wrote another woman.

Dollar General spokeswoman Crystal Ghassemi said her company is aware of the problem at her stores and other retailers. She said Dollar General is working on it.

"We are working diligently to order additional products and receive them at our stores, but we do not have a definite timeline for when these products may be available in our stores," Ghassemi wrote in an email to The Post and Courier. "We greatly appreciate our customers’ ongoing patience as we work to best meet their needs."

Latham's theory is that supply is down even as demand has risen: Fewer jars are arriving at the grocery store — IGA Market in Iva — where he cooks hot meals, he said. Then there are the people who are growing more food in home gardens and hoarding all kinds of canned goods. His store's meat and vegetable shelves are regularly empty on the canned foods aisle.

"Grocery stores, I mean we put orders in and may get half of what we ordered," Latham said. "It's pretty bad."

Canning supplies shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic

Greenville resident Cindy Hosea spoons out some of her homemade fig preserves on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Hosea said she had to use the small jars because she could not find quart-size Ball jars anywhere.

Ball jar lids come in two pieces, said Kimberly Baker, Clemson Extension's food systems and safety program team director. (Baker has a doctorate in food technology.) A lid's ring bands are reusable, she said, and so are relatively plentiful. The missing piece is the lid's top disk whose center button pops when the food inside has been properly preserved.

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"I looked on Amazon, and the price for jars and lids, which usually are $2 a pack, shot up to $13 a pack," Baker said.

She asked her mom in Pennsylvania to look for lids, and it was the same: Nothing.

Canning supplies shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic

Greenville resident Cindy Hosea displays her canning jars from the Ball Jar company, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Demand for a critical piece of the canning process — fresh lids — has gone up even as supply appears to be down, experts say, leading to shortages.

"So I know it's happening nationally," Baker said.

Cindy Hosea, a Greenville real estate agent and photographer, said she found two sets of 8-ounce "elite collection" jars and lids at Target for her fig preserves. She snatched both boxes. She looked in other stores but could not find 16- or 32-ounce standard jars.

"All I could find were those squatty things, which were not ideal," Hosea said. "If I were giving them as gifts, they would have been cute. But it's not a very practical jar for canning."

Greenville resident Carolyn Shanesy had three boxes of tomatoes to can and only 12 jars. She cannibalized wide-mouth jelly jars for their lids to fit on her standard quart-sized containers, and gave up on finding more after visiting five stores. She froze what was left.

"This must be like a canning crazy year, I guess, with COVID-19," Shanesy said.

Some desperate canners have reached out to the Bee Well Honey Farm in Pickens to use honey jars for storage, said Lisa Thomas, operations manager at the farm. The honey farm sells glass jars, but the glass is not as thick as a typical Ball jar, and the lids do not come in the two-piece, button-popping variety, she said.

"We are telling people, don't use that in a pressure cooker," Thomas said. "Pressure is not a good idea. We tell people, 'You don't want it to blow up.'"

The main goal with canning, Clemson Extension's Baker said, is to avoid botulism — rare but deadly.

"It's a slow death," Baker said. "Your body shuts down."

This is where science comes in and a call to your local extension agent is a good idea. Canners neutralize the clostridium botulinum bacteria with high heat. Pressure and heat at 240 degrees preserves meats and vegetables or any other food low in acid, Baker said. Anything that is acidic or has acid added via vinegar can be preserved using a water bath or steam at 212 degrees. This is good for fruits, jellies, pickles and salsas.

Lacking the right supplies, Baker said, home cooks should consider freezing or drying their spare food.

Follow Anna B. Mitchell on Twitter at @AnnaBard2U.

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