Expanded USDA food box program begins operation

California-grown food has begun moving to people struggling with food insecurity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic through a new federal program, which also may benefit some farmers, ranchers and food distributors who lost business when restaurants and other food service outlets closed after stay-at-home protocols took effect.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers to Families Food Box Program will buy up to $3 billion in fresh produce, meat and dairy products for delivery to food banks and other nonprofits providing for people who need food.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson said the program has been received "enthusiastically" by participating farmers, ranchers and others in the food supply chain.

"Farmers and ranchers want to help their communities, and there's been a lot of interest in the food box program because it offers opportunities for a wide variety of crops and commodities," Johansson said. "Unlike traditional Section 32 food purchase programs run through the USDA, this new program will expand the number of farms and communities that can directly benefit."

Among the California-based food distributors participating in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program is Ag Link Inc., based in Ballico, which mainly supplies fresh fruits and vegetables to school districts.

Jana Nairn of Ag Link said schools began canceling produce orders last month.

"We got about a dozen calls from schools saying they were canceling all of their orders, so all of that product was ready to be loaded into trucks and go out," Nairn said. "The ramifications on farmers and packinghouses were felt immediately. That put us into a bit of a tailspin and then a reorganization, trying to figure out what we were going to do."

Schools are "large-volume users" of California produce, she said, and some were able to use the produce the company had on hand for community feeding efforts. But Ag Link is shipping less than half of typical volumes for this time of year.

When USDA announced the Farmers to Food Box Program, Nairn said, she saw it as a natural fit that would help farmers and shippers feeling the effects of food-service closures. USDA awarded the company a $2.9 million contract, and it began shipping boxes May 15. Nairn said Ag Link has partnered with produce distributors Fresh Innovations of Stockton and Taylor Farms of Salinas to pack food boxes that include produce and chicken.

Ag Link is packing and supplying 4,000 food boxes daily, which are shipped to consumers through local nonprofits such as the Emergency Food Bank of Stockton and schools in Turlock. Produce includes lettuce and vegetables from Salinas, stone fruit from Sanger, sweet potatoes from Livingston, and tomatoes and onions from Stockton, Nairn said.

"The two-pronged approach by USDA was genius," she said, "because it assures that people can get fresh produce, but also benefits the farmers, packinghouses, transportation companies and distributors, who all needed help. We're all in this together and we're just really excited and blessed to be part of it."

The program also benefits California dairy farmers. Joseph Gallo Farms, a cheese company in Atwater, received a $175,000 contract from USDA to pack an all-dairy box filled with about 12 pounds of products including mozzarella, shredded cheese for taco mix, string cheese, Monterey Jack and cream cheese.

"USDA is trying to get a variety of different food boxes, and instead of going through the normal distribution supply chain, get it directly to the people who need it most as quickly as possible," said Peter Gallo, Joseph Gallo Farms vice president of business development. "We saw it as a good opportunity to help and at the same time, help the dairy farmers."

Gallo said the boxes include cheeses and other dairy products packaged in portions easily adapted for a box for a family.

"You've got cheese to give to the kids and cheese that you could sprinkle on a salad or a taco," he said.

As restaurants and others in the food sector reopen, Gallo said, cheese prices have started to reflect a little optimism.

"Dairy prices in general are going to continue to be depressed, maybe at or below their cost of production on average for the remainder of the year," he said, "but it's already looking more like $15-17 a hundredweight average; we were looking at $12-15 a hundredweight just a couple months ago. No one really knows what's going to happen, but I think we're all starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel."

Dairy producers are among farmers and ranchers eligible to apply for direct payments through the USDA Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which provides support to producers who have suffered a 5%-or-greater price decline in the first quarter of 2020 due to COVID-19. Applications for the program opened this week and continue through Aug. 28. Information on eligibility and application forms can be found at farmers.gov/cfap.

In addition, farms, ranches and agricultural businesses are now eligible for the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. For information, see www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/coronavirus-relief-options.

For the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, USDA said it may extend contracts depending upon program success and remaining funds. More information is available at www.usda.gov/farmers-to-families.

Information on other programs and services available to farmers affected by the coronavirus pandemic is available at farmers.gov/coronavirus.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau, PO Box 1846, Buellton, CA 93427
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