When the lockdowns from the coronavirus started happening this year, Gaye Walker and her husband, Dave Walker, who own Walker Farm in Hillsborough, immediately lost the ability to sell to restaurants.
And what made the first months even more panic-inducing, the farmers’ markets they participated in also closed, leaving the Walkers with just the produce stand at their farm as their only reliable source of income.
“We had a new business – a new farm that opened up around the corner of us. We were real concerned that between the pandemic and them, it was going to really affect us business-wise,” Walker said.
These are the kinds of problems that the $3 billion Farmers to Families Food Box program, launched in April, seeks to alleviate. In August, President Donald Trump and advisor Ivanka Trump also announced during a visit to distributors in Mills River that it would get $1 billion more in funding, for a total of $4 billion. Ivanka Trump, along with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, also made a surprise visit to speak on the program at the State Farmers Market earlier this month.
The Walkers participated in donation drives to feed the hungry in Orange County. But six months later, their income still has not stabilized.
“We have one restaurant that’s now purchasing from us, but he’s purchasing a third, or maybe a fourth of what he purchased last year,” Gaye Walker said. “The restaurants, I’m really concerned about with this pandemic.”
Farmers to Families has gone through two rounds. The first round purchased $1.2 billion from May to June, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The second round, which began in July, purchased $1.5 billion. In July, USDA also announced the third round, with distributions planned to occur September to October.
The program is administered by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and is part of the $16 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. To date, the USDA announced on Tuesday, Farmers to Families has distributed 100 million food boxes nationwide.
“I would say that the program has been extremely successful,” said William Kelley, director of the Henderson County Cooperative Extension with N.C. State University. “It has provided food to millions of people that needed it. And in the process, farmers who weren’t able to otherwise sell or distribute, or move their products had been able to move their products because of this program. It was a win-win situation.”
Kelley also praised how quickly the program was launched. “The farmer in Henderson County that’s doing this, he’s never seen a program get into place as quickly as this one did,” Kelley said. “He thought that by the time the paperwork was done, the pandemic would be done.”
Help for small farmers
The program allows distributors and nonprofits to distribute the boxes, and any nonprofit can sign up to be a recipient as long as they can show they have the ability to store and give out the perishable boxes.
Both producers and recipients are tied to the distributors, who are the ones to submit the applications. Most recipients have been school systems, food banks and churches.
Baptists on Mission, the Cary-based organization highlighted by Trump’s visit, is also distributing in the state in the third round. Other distributors serving North Carolina in this round are Greensboro-based Foster-Caviness Inc., Gargiulo, Frank M. & Son Inc., and Military Produce Group, among others.
Kelley said the program could be improved when it comes to helping more small farmers.
Farmers to Families requires participating farms to have GAP audits, which stands for Good Agricultural Practices. Those are voluntary but costly, and are more normally used by large farms selling products over long distances. Small farms selling at produce stands, farmers’ markets and participating in CSAs, or community-supported agriculture, usually do not have GAP audits.
Kelley said if the safety requirement could be adjusted to FSMA, it could open up the program to more small farmers. FSMA is the Food Safety Modernization Act, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration law passed in 2010.
“They required all the suppliers to be GAP-certified. That requires a lot of record-keeping and inspections and so forth,” Kelley said. “The reason was to make sure the products that were getting distributed met all the food safety requirements. But with FSMA, they could have included more people.”
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition stated in June that the program had seven percent participation rate from small farmers. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, which advocates for sustainable practices and organic growers said the USDA fell short of the 10 percent goal it had set.
Wes King, a senior policy specialist with NSAC who wrote the blog post, said he had arrived at the 7 percent figure by looking through the USDA’s contracts in the first round.
“I and a few others painstakingly researched every entity that received a contract in the first round and made what amounts to professional judgement calls as to whether or not we thought the contractor was a local and regional food systems entities,” King said in an e-mail on Tuesday. “For some it was obvious they were farms who normally engaged in sales to local schools, restaurants and to consumers through farmers markets and CSAs; for others it was less straightforward.”
The FSMA also notably has an amendment by the late North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who worked with Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, to give small farms exemption from the new federal rule. The amendment defines small farms simply as those farms selling less than $500,000 a year and who sell 50 percent of their goods within state or within a 400-mile radius.
The Tester-Hagan amendment leaves small farms back under the oversight of local and state entities.
Orange County closed the Eno River Farmers’ Market in Hillsborough in March. The market stayed closed through North Carolina’s phase 2 reopening in May, and had customers do pre-orders and pick-ups only. It will not reopen until October. In its most recent newsletter in September, the market stated even that reopening will be “soft,” with fewer vendors.
The Hillsborough Farmers Market, a smaller market run by UNC Healthcare, remains closed.
When the lockdowns began in March, the demand for produce at restaurants “absolutely collapsed,” said Debbie Hamrick, director of specialty crops with the N.C. Farm Bureau Federation in the Triangle.
And because of the way agriculture is run, producers could not go from selling to restaurants to selling directly to consumers.
“You buy them 25-30 pounds at a time. That supply chain that was set up to supply tomatoes now all of a sudden had no sales outlets. The demand shifted overnight,” Hamrick said. “We were at 52 or 53 percent, from the economic research at USDA – almost half of the meals for Americans were out of the house. All of a sudden, that was gone and Americans were eating at home.”
“The farmers in that production channel were just absolutely screaming,” she added. “And milk, cheese, meat. These products, you don’t just go from packing a bulk product to packaging for the consumer – from 50 pounds to half pound, wrapped, paper products like a butcher shop product – instantaneously. It was a massive disruption and the USDA wanted to do something.”
Like Kelley, Hamrick praised the USDA for putting the program together so fast.
“They got it out there and it was not perfect, but it’s been iterative and they’ve improved it,” she said. “We all get surprised when we hear government does something good. But there are some really good people. USDA, man, they got a bunch of money and had to put in a billion-dollar program that had never been done before. And somehow, it’s not perfect, but it has happened.”
Courtney Tellefsen, founder and CEO of The Produce Box, a Raleigh membership-based service that delivers weekly groceries, participated in the first two rounds of Farmers to Families by linking up with Baptists on Mission to build their boxes.
“They had a network of churches. … So they had an easy way to get the boxes from us to people who needed them. And they already had the logistics and trucking and everything,” Tellefsen.
Tellefsen said her company submitted its own application to be a distributor to the USDA for the third round, but was rejected.
Joey McNeill, vice president of Ward’s Produce in Raleigh, said his company delivered more than 634,000 boxes from May to September. The company had participated in the first two rounds to deliver produce boxes, but not for the third, which is asking for combination boxes of produce, dairy and meat.
McNeill said that as a result of the program, his company not only retained its workforce but even hired new workers this year.
“Given the quickness of the program rolling out, the mobilization on the USDA was nothing short of incredible,” McNeill said. “We were able to hire more people to help us with packing. There are so many food insecure families out there that it was a godsend. We worked with 90-plus unique nonprofits in terms of referring products to people, the end use recipients.”
“We went from 40 employees at the time of the shutdown and then we were operating with 55-60 employees while the program was in place,” he said.
Ward’s Produce delivered boxes to numerous organizations, including: the Food Banks of Central and Eastern North Carolina in Raleigh and Durham and other food banks in the state, Durham Rescue Mission, PORCH in Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill Public Housing, Orange County Social Services, school systems in Johnston, Person and Vance counties, the Inter-faith Food Shuttle in Raleigh, and churches across the state.
McNeill said he hopes the USDA will keep the program going.
“I hope (the USDA) will do something similar to this because there will still be food insecure people in this country after COVID passes,” he said.