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Food banks fear possible end of USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program

The program, which sent more than a 100 million boxes of fresh food to families straight from food distributors, was part of a Covid-19 relief program that might not continue in 2021.
Drivers wait at a "Let's Feed LA County" event hosted by the Los Angeles Food Bank in Hacienda Heights, Calif., on Dec. 4.Frederic J. Brown / AFP - Getty Images file

As the Dow Jones hits record highs, climbing past 30,000 points and lining the pockets of the country's richest, Greg Meyer of Soldotna, Alaska, is trying to figure out how to get his community fed.

Meyer, the executive director of Kenai Peninsula Food Bank in south-central Alaska, makes sure people in one of the hardest-to-reach regions of the country have enough food on the table. Alaska residents, already in a budget crisis, were hit hard by Covid-19: Oil prices tanked, the Canadian border closed, tourism dropped, seasonal fishing was complicated by travel restrictions, and cruise ships no longer lined the state's shores — not to mention the rising case numbers. Demand for food assistance on the Kenai Peninsula became impossible to meet.

Help came in the form of the Agriculture Department's Farmers to Families Food Box program.

As part of the $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, the Agriculture Department announced in April it would set up partnerships between food banks and food distributors, whose workforces have been "significantly impacted by the closure of many restaurants, hotels, and other food service entities." Through the partnerships, the Agriculture Department provided packaged boxes of fresh produce, dairy and meat to food banks like Meyer's, ready to meet soaring demand.

The boxes were a success, giving people on the Kenai Peninsula and elsewhere access to food of a previously unreachable quality and quantity. The Agriculture Department ran four rounds of the program from April to December and delivered more than 110 million boxes nationwide.

Despite some logistical challenges, the boxes stuffed with high-quality food cut out the middleman, making delivery easier and keeping the produce fresher while providing necessary relief to food banks, whose demand spiked as Covid-19 spread into every corner of the country. Distributors and charities said the program was efficient. The people getting the boxes were happy with the product. But the final round of the program ends with 2020, and it's unclear whether it will continue in 2021.

"This has been a very emotional week for our community," Meyer said. "We are letting everyone know this is the last time we have the boxes, and people don't know what to do."

In October 2019, the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank distributed 80,670 pounds of food. In October 2020, the number tripled, to 242,479 pounds — 112,500 of those pounds came from Farmers to Families boxes.

An Agriculture Department spokesperson said that "with the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 becoming law, the Agriculture Department is evaluating all funding opportunities for food purchases." The spokesperson didn't comment specifically about the program's future.

In Kenai, the boxes provided not only a crucial amount of food, but also a quality most people hadn't seen before. Transportation, Meyer said, often stands in the way of getting fresh food to needy families in Alaska, where the growing season is incredibly short. The Seward Highway, which snakes around the peninsula, is more aptly described as a two-lane road. A winter storm can bury the road in 3 feet of snow in just a few hours, and cuts in the plowing schedule mean residents can find themselves isolated from Anchorage, where most food is distributed. In addition, ferry cuts have led to fewer boats arriving, and if a boat has a mechanical problem or is temporarily out of commission because of Covid-19 exposure, food just might not come. Winter makes already expensive plane travel even more difficult.

A gallon of milk can cost $12 on the Kenai Peninsula. In the winter, residents are lucky to get even produce with longer shelf lives, like potatoes or cabbage.

Recently, a falling rock from an avalanche hit the truck the Kenai Food Bank uses to deliver groceries as it was on its way to residents in remote villages. The windshield was shattered, the truck full of the Agriculture Department food boxes needed repairs, and the Alaskans Meyer serves were hungry. People in Meyer's line of work have enough challenges; the program's possible disappearance adds another.

Image: A Farmers to Families food box
A Farmers to Families Food Box in Athens, Ohio, on Dec. 19.Stephen Zenner / AFP - Getty Images file

In Nebraska, Brian Barks, CEO of Food Bank for the Heartland, hopes the program will continue.

"I really hope our leaders in Washington will look at this program and the benefit that was brought by it and consider moving it forward," he said.

His food bank, which serves most of Nebraska and parts of western Iowa, would spend around $80,000 a month on food before the pandemic. For January to June 2021, it has budgeted to spend $1.5 million a month. Need is through the roof, and it's not slowing down.

"Food security typically lags behind an economic recovery," Barks said. "We are going to see an increased demand for a significant amount of time."

Food Bank for the Heartland prepared for the program's end, and it has secured enough funding through community support and the state to essentially re-create the Farmers to Families program on a small scale. But the quality of the product provided by the Agriculture Department program is hard to match, Barks said.

Usually, food banks secure what Barks said you might call "seconds" — food that is fine to eat but not "A-level product." These boxes, straight from producers, were A-level, he said.

"People who are in a position that need food assistance, especially those navigating that for the first time, they need to be shown that they matter and that they deserve to get high-quality food like everyone else does," he said.

Image: Food Bank for the Heartland
Boxes of food are set up for drive-thru food distribution by Food Bank for the Heartland in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on March 16. The food bank, based in Omaha, Nebraska, serves Nebraska and many parts of western Iowa.Food Bank for the Heartland

Ginette Bott, president and CEO of the Utah Food Bank, hopes the program continues but says the organization is preparing to make do without it.

"It would be awesome if it did, but we are not counting on it," she said. "Families around us who have been impacted by the pandemic aren't going to recoup on New Year's Day. "

The Utah Food Bank, Bott said, is looking at long-term sustainability plans, as it expect needs to remain at record levels.

On the Kenai Peninsula, the possible end of the program adds another layer of darkness to Alaska's harsh winters.

"Our community is generous, but there is no way we can duplicate" the program, Meyer said.

People who have gotten the boxes have thanked him profusely, thrilled by the sight of fresh vegetables and milk with a long shelf life that they don't need to freeze.

"Earlier in the year we were getting lettuce," Meyer said, "which is a big treat here."