Millions set to go to food banks could boost local farm purchasing

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The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank set a goal years ago to make half of its distributed product mix fresh fruits and vegetables. At the time, in 2014, those types of food made up about 21% of its distribution, said Joshua Murphy, director of supply chain strategy with the food bank. That’s about 5.8 million pounds a year.

It was a lofty goal, Murphy said, but one they’ve been chipping away at it. By the time the pandemic started, the food bank had gotten its fruits and veggies percentage up to 32%, or about 12 million pounds a year.

With funding from a new U.S. Department of Agriculture program, that number could go up even more and include more local foods in the mix.

The Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program is pumping $400 million to the states to use to buy food from local farmers and producers for emergency food assistance programs. 

“Fresh produce, dairy products, meat, those are the things people want the most,” Murphy said, and it’s even better when they’re sourced from local farmers. “The people we serve are really excited when they learn that their food came from their community and it’s supporting the economy in their area … Having a good experience at a food distribution is a big thing for people because they’re already overcoming so many obstacles to get here.”

Direct help

 Pennsylvania has been allocated $15.2 million over two years through the program. Ohio was allotted $13.5 million and West Virginia could receive $2.4 million.

The money has not yet been awarded, but Tom Mainzer, director of agricultural partnerships with Feeding Pennsylvania, the state’s association of Feeding America affiliated food banks, said they have a plan for how to use the new funds. 

Mainzer said they want to bring on new farmers as vendors, and they’re looking for producers of all sizes from all areas of the state. Feeding Pennsylvania works with nine regional food banks that serve more than 2,700 local food pantries and emergency food programs.

“We’re reaching out to our existing vendor partners and hope to reach new vendor partners as well,” he said. “One thing we’re trying to do is get vendors from throughout the entire state, not just from Philly, Lancaster or Pittsburgh.”

Mainzer said they also hope to expand direct to agency deliveries, where farmers take their goods directly to a local food pantry instead of taking it to the food bank to be distributed. This works especially well for farmers who have smaller amounts of product, like a couple boxes of tomatoes or zucchinis compared with several pallets or an entire truckload.

“Small amounts that are tailored to agencies close to the farmer, so we’re handling the product less, and people are getting fresher food,” Murphy said. 

The farms must be local, which by USDA definition means within the states or within 400 miles of the delivery destination. Mainzer said they added the additional stipulation in their program request that the food be from Pennsylvania. 

“If you use 400 miles from Harrisburg, it reaches into the northeastern corner of Tennessee,” Mainzer said. 

A focus will also be put on sourcing foods from socially disadvantaged farmers.

Follow up

The Local Food Purchase Assistance Program is the next step forward from the Farmers to Families Food Box Program that was launched at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program was to put together boxes of locally-produced and sourced foods for people in need.

The program was supposed to kill two birds with one stone — help farmers who lost markets due to the pandemic and help the countless families that found themselves suddenly on the breadline because of the pandemic.

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The program worked quite well in western Pennsylvania, Murphy said, but he doubts any small or medium farmers truly benefited from it. “It was the distributors that benefited most,” he said.

In other areas, like parts of West Virginia and Ohio, the program had issues.

Buying direct

When buying food directly from farmers, food banks aren’t just looking for excess produce during the growing season. They buy fresh fruits and vegetables as well as dairy products and meats. 

“We’re interested in anything people will eat,” Murphy said. “If people eat it, we’re going to procure it this year.”

Pricing is negotiable. Mainzer said it’s case-by-case. Someone with a truckload of tomatoes may get a more competitive price than someone with five boxes of tomatoes. Tomatoes picked that afternoon would be more sought after than ones that were picked a week ago. Apples prepackaged in five pound bags could command a higher price than apples delivered loose in a bin. 

“There are a lot of variables that go into how a price is determined … Ultimately, the goal is a fair price,” Mainzer said. “These farms are businesses.”

Farmers interested in working with local food banks can contact Mainzer for more information: tmainzer@feedingpa.org.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 800-337-3419.)

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