USDA food boxes fall short in southern Ohio

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sonny perdue loads box
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue loads a box into a vehicle at the Farmers to Families Food Box distribution May 27, at the Westmoreland County Fairgrounds. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

When the Farmers to Families Food Box program was announced, it seemed like it was too good to be true. The new U.S. Department of Agriculture program would devote up to $3 billion to buy dairy, meat and produce off the market to donate to families in need.

With farmers dumping milk and plowing under produce due to lost markets, and unemployment levels at record highs, the program would fill gaps in the food supply chain that’s been strained by a global pandemic.

And in some regions, that’s what it’s done. In others, it’s failing to connect the food with those that need it most.

“While we felt like it would be a great benefit to all those we serve, it’s not seeming to be as easy as it was projected,” said Cynthia Kirkhart, executive director of Facing Hunger Foodbank, based in Huntington, West Virginia.

Kirkhart said they’ve had challenges getting established with a food box provider. They’ve gotten one delivery of boxes from one supplier, but they’re still waiting on boxes from another supplier. It’s all come down to scheduling issues, she said.

“They’ve really made it impossible thus far to receive those boxes from them,” Kirkhart said.

Facing Hunger Foodbank serves 17 counties in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. They’ve seen about a 30% increase in people needing their help since the pandemic began.

The USDA awarded $1.2 billion in contracts May 8 to nearly 200 companies to purchase and package local food into family-sized boxes. There are different boxes companies could apply for: a produce box, a mixed dairy product box, a precooked meat box and a combination box.

Some of Facing Hunger Foodbank’s regular, local suppliers applied for the program, but none were selected. No West Virginia companies were awarded contracts.

Freestore Foodbank, based in Cincinnati, experienced similar difficulties. Trisha Rayner, vice president of external affairs with Freestore, said some of their longtime partners submitted proposals, but also weren’t selected for the program.

The USDA awarded four contracts to Ohio businesses, and all of them are in the northern part of the state. Two are in Cleveland — one is in Huron and one is from Willard.

That left the food banks wondering where their food boxes would be coming from.

Nearly a dozen U.S. senators, including Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Bob Casey, D-Pa., raised questions recently in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue about the selection process for awarding contracts to suppliers.

The letter, sent June 5, noted that press reports found that some bidders didn’t have the required licenses to distribute perishable foods when they received contracts. Other contractors lacked critical experience in food distribution. The senators also noted concerns about gaps in distribution areas because of the unequal geographic spread of contracts.

The process for how food banks could connect with these new, and sometimes inexperienced, suppliers was not clear initially. It was up to the food banks to reach out to approved contractors in their regions to set up a delivery of boxes.

Kirkhart said they got fruit and vegetable boxes and dairy product boxes, but they’ve not been able to get meat boxes. Rayner said it’s been a similar situation for Freestore Foodbank, which serves 20 counties in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

“We have found that in the protein area, there were not enough funds allocated or suppliers to supply our area,” Rayner said. “The mixed dairy — there may have been dollars, but not enough suppliers.”

The idea was for the boxes to go straight from the delivery truck to the trunk of a family’s car in mass distributions. That was the scene when Perdue visited western Pennsylvania to oversee Westmoreland County Food Bank’s food box distribution May 27.

At that drive-through distribution at the Westmoreland County Fairgrounds, 1,000 boxes of dairy products and produce were loaded into the backs of waiting vehicles. It was all done in a matter of hours.

But this hasn’t been the case everywhere. Some of the suppliers lack the right type of truck to do this kind of distribution. In other cases, the food bank wasn’t able to facilitate such a large-scale distribution. So the boxes are being dropped off at food bank facilities and distributed through smaller member organizations.

Suppliers have until June 30 to deliver on their contracts.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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