GREENSBURG, Pa. — Dressed in a green plaid shirt, Sonny Perdue loaded a box into the back of a car with other volunteers at the Westmoreland County Fairgrounds. He gave a thumbs up to the driver indicating they are OK to pull away.
With his face covered by an American flag mask, it’s hard to say if the people in the car know the U.S. secretary of agriculture just delivered them food from the program his department started a little over a month ago.
“This is what America does best,” Perdue said, during a press conference before the distribution for the Farmers to Families Food Box program began Wednesday morning.
“This is America coming together to fulfill the USDA motto. While it’s our motto, you all are doing it. Do right and feed everyone. You can do without a lot of things in America, but you can’t do without food.”
The Westmoreland County Food Bank oversaw one of the first mass distributions for the new USDA program that promises to purchase up to $3 billion in dairy, meat and produce to be donated to families in need. Perdue announced the program, as well as $16 billion in direct payments to farmers impacted by COVID-19, on April 17.
The goal was to work with suppliers and distributors who have been impacted by coronavirus food service closures to instead package that food into family-sized boxes that will be passed out through food banks and other non-profits. The USDA approved $1.2 billion in the first round of contracts May 8.
Perdue said President Donald Trump charged him with creating a program to realign the food supply chain after reading about produce being plowed under because of lost markets.
“You can imagine a farmer, whether it’s dumping milk or having to euthanize livestock or plow under vegetables,” Perdue said. “The blood, sweat and tears they put into producing that food for America to be destroyed was not only economically damaged, but heartbreaking as well.”
Cars snaked through the fairgrounds, waiting their turn to drive into the repurposed rabbit barn to receive their part of the distribution. With trunks popped open or tailgates down, the vehicles were directed to one of four stations within the building where a team of volunteers loaded their vehicles.
Each family got a produce box and dairy products box from the USDA program. Jennifer Miller, chief executive officer of Westmoreland County Food Bank, said they also gave out cases of flavored water that had been donated.
This was also the first mass distribution of this size for the Westmoreland County Food Bank, Miller said. As much as they can, they’ve been trying to use their network of 66 member organizations to distribute food.
“People are in need. If they have to wait in lines, that takes up gas money,” she said.
There was enough to help 1,000 families. If any cars came in after that, they’d be directed to get help from a local food pantry, Miller said.
Anyone could get in line. For some, it was likely their first time seeking help from a food assistance program, Miller said. Nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians filed for unemployment since COVID-19 measures began in mid-March, forcing some businesses to scale back or close completely.
“If you eat, you qualify,” Miller said.
Earlier in the morning, Perdue took a tour of the Turner Dairy Farms plant near Pittsburgh.
Turner Dairy Farms was awarded a $315,450 bid to produce dairy products boxes. The boxes contained a gallon of 2% milk, a half gallon of chocolate milk, cottage cheese cups, butter, sour cream, ricotta cheese, Swiss cheese and cheese curds.
Chuck Turner, president of Turner Dairy Farms, said the contract wasn’t a money maker for the company, but it helped keep employees working. Their volume decreased by about 25% after schools and restaurants closed, but they haven’t had to lay anyone off.
“It’s also using the milk from our dairy farms. We have 36 family dairy farms that ship milk to us,” he said. “Finally, and most importantly, it’s helping put food on tables for our neighbors that need some help right now.”
The produce boxes, packaged by Mid-Atlantic Regional Cooperative, contained a cantaloupe, three onions, five potatoes, a head of iceberg lettuce, 3 pounds of apples, eight oranges and three yams. Mid-Atlantic Cooperative, based in Philadelphia, was awarded a $3.7 million multi-regional contract to produce fresh fruit and vegetable boxes.
While suppliers in the region seem to be delivering on their promise, elsewhere, there have been issues and questions raised about contractors approved for the program.
Two Texas congressmen asked the USDA last week to review a $39 million contract issued to a San Antonio-based event planner. An investigation by the San Antonio Express found that CRE8AD8, owned by Gregorio Palomino, not only had no prior experience in food distribution, but also that Palomino lied about professional credentials and past work.
The contract to buy 18 million pounds of food and pack it into 750,000 boxes was awarded to this relatively unknown company over several longtime San Antonio food distributors, the Express reported.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said for the USDA to award 198 contracts in a week for the Farmers to Families Food Box program means there was not proper vetting done.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(A longer version of this story will appear in the June 4 issue of Farm and Dairy. Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or email@example.com.)
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