On a recent Saturday, a truck pulled into an empty parking lot behind a shared kitchen space in Baltimore, and a driver began unloading 500 boxes filled with fresh leafy greens, cucumbers, green beans, mushrooms, apples, onions, peppers, and potatoes. At the same time, Seth Wheeler, a local entrepreneur who had arranged to receive and distribute the boxes through an organization he created in the midst of the pandemic, was figuring out how to get them to people all over the city.
He took a call to talk to a man who said he could deliver 50 boxes to people at home as a line of residents that had been alerted to the distribution, each wearing a mask and carefully keeping their distance, began to form. A volunteer from a local food pantry stopped by to check out the boxes. “Everyone is always asking if we have produce,” she said. “Now you do!” Wheeler told her.
The drop-off was one of many made that week by The Common Market, a nonprofit regional food distributor that runs three food hubs. The food went to a network of 85 partner organizations in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, and a handful of other East Coast cities and rural communities.
The Common Market is one of about 200 farms and distributors that were awarded contracts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to stock its Farm to Families Food Boxes. A week after the hub was awarded $5.7 million for work in two regions, its drivers delivered about 15,000 produce and dairy boxes in the first week, with a goal of ramping up to 35,000 in subsequent weeks. That’s in addition to 5,000 boxes assembled and delivered out of its Georgia food hub to community organizations in the Southeast; that location is aiming for 15,000 per week at full capacity.
“We have never in our history done emergency food relief. This is a massive pivot for us, and we did it very quickly,” said Yael Lehmann, executive director of The Common Market Mid-Atlantic. “This is also a living, breathing moment for us, because we’re just trying to figure out what we’re capable of logistically.”
In the South, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit cooperative of Black farmers and landowners, received a smaller contract for $480,000 but was similarly quick to act. In the first three weeks, it delivered 4,000 boxes filled with produce from small farms in Georgia and Mississippi.
While the program has so far been in the news almost exclusively due to USDA missteps and various criticisms, these regional distributors of food from small farms seem to be succeeding at fulfilling its original intent, despite many challenges.
The Food Box program is one of several initiatives under the USDA’s $19 billion Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program to support farmers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the majority of the money is being allocated as direct payments to farmers who have suffered losses, up to $3 billion was designated to purchase meat, dairy, and produce that might otherwise go to waste to be packed in boxes for organizations feeding hungry people.
After the program was announced on April 17, farms and distributors had to apply to participate in the program by May 1. Winners of contracts were announced on May 8. On June 4, the USDA announced 5 million Food Boxes had been distributed to date.
A Rocky Rollout
The program has continuously faced criticism since the outset. Most notably, the USDA awarded contracts to several companies with no experience sourcing or distributing food, including an event planning agency in San Antonio and an avocado company in California, the latter of which it later rescinded. On May 22, a group of House lawmakers sent a letter to USDA secretary Sonny Perdue requesting more information on how decisions on recipients were made. They expressed concerns “that contracts were awarded to entities with little to no experience in agriculture or food distribution and with little capacity to meet the obligations of the award.”
“Contracts were awarded to entities with little to no experience in agriculture or food distribution and with little capacity to meet the obligations of the award.”
Produce industry groups were upset that contracts did not go to some of the country’s largest national distributors. Those that did get contracts have been irked by the stream of bad news; ProPublica recently reported that some have hired a lobbyist to shape more positive media coverage.
At the same time, advocates for small farms and regional food systems were upset that big distributors and companies (including meatpackers like Cargill and Tyson and Borden Dairy, which recently filed for bankruptcy) dominated the list, while requirements of the program made it difficult for smaller farms to participate.
“When it was rolled out and announced, it felt like it was going to be a real opportunity,” said Wes King, a senior policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). “But when they released the RFP, it became clear that it was going to be of limited assistance to the smallest local producers in the country.”
And last Friday, 10 Democratic Senators asked the USDA for more transparency to ensure the program is working to help both farmers and families in need. In a letter to Ag Secretary Perdue, they wrote, “Although some areas have reported positive experiences, we are concerned that the food box program has a number of gaps that will affect its ability to provide food to families in an efficient and equitable way.”
From Farm to Box
However, some of these small distributors that work with local farms were already delivering boxes as these issues were being hashed out.
When the coronavirus started to spread, The Common Market’s leadership had just gotten back from a board retreat where they had discussed goals for 2020. It was before anyone knew how bad the pandemic would get, and discussions were around building on the progress they’d made getting regional food from small- and mid-size farms into institutions like universities, schools, and early childcare centers, Lehmann said. That approach had made them uniquely successful over the past decade as many other food hubs—lauded for a long time as the best infrastructure solution to scaling up local food systems—have failed.
“Looking back, it’s hysterically funny to me,” said Lehmann. “It’s just that we had no idea what was about to hit us.” As mayors and governors began issuing shelter-in-place orders and institutions and restaurants closed, orders were canceled, and the future looked bleak.
Soon, however, The Common Market was getting calls from school districts and other partners that were setting up feeding operations as unemployment spiked. Bulk orders for produce such as apples that could be distributed in school meals came in. Then, The Common Market Mid-Atlantic got a contract with New York City to provide food boxes that the city would distribute as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $170 million emergency food plan. The team worked out a new assembly line at the warehouse and were soon providing 13,000 food boxes per week in NYC alone.
“That’s one of the memories that’s going to be burned into my head,” Lehmann said, of the first delivery arriving in NYC. “They took the pallets off the truck and put them into taxicabs and limousines that have been out of work and are getting paid by the city to distribute.”
By the time the opportunity to get the USDA Food Box contract presented itself, The Common Market had a solid system in place. Still, the increase in capacity is massive, given the size of the contract—$5.7 million across the two regions.
In addition to the boxes going to New York, the USDA will reimburse the Mid-Atlantic team for up to another 25,000 produce boxes and 10,000 dairy boxes. In order to source, assemble, and distribute that much food, they had to rent a tractor-trailer, two additional box trucks, and extra storage. They had to hire extra temporary workers (since the contract is only for six weeks, with the possibility of extension), and they went from one warehouse shift a day to double shifts, seven days a week.
The Common Market is moving so much food, in fact, that Lehmann and her team had to bring on new, larger farms as suppliers. And while there’s no doubt that a lot of food is being packed and donated, it’s unclear how much of that food might have gone to waste otherwise. The USDA required only that food come from domestic farms and did not build in a mechanism to reach only farmers with excess supply.
“At the time of program development, the fresh produce, dairy, chicken, and pork industries were already negatively impacted by COVID-19 and subsequently selected as the product categories for the program,” a USDA spokesperson told Civil Eats.
Lehmann said there were instances where the benefit to those industries was apparent, like with Pequea Valley Farm, an Amish dairy in Pennsylvania that is supplying milk, yogurt, and cheese for the boxes. “They told us that the milk that’s going into making the cheese would have been dumped,” she said.
But not all farms are being impacted equally—and due to many aspects of the pandemic, a reshuffling of resources and supply chains is causing stark inequities. “Some farmers are dumping stuff, other farmers have so much demand they can’t keep up,” said Lehmann.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives works with small, mostly Black-owned farms in the South, and Chawnn Redden, regional marketing coordinator, said that while their member farms in Georgia and Mississippi “didn’t necessarily have things dying in the fields,” many lost the majority of their markets and desperately needed new sales outlets. “A lot of our small farmers depend on the restaurant business. They depend on farmers’ markets, they depend on hotels . . . and those were some of the first things that shut down,” she said.
The Food Box contract allowed the Federation to pay fair market prices to buy produce from those farmers, Redden said. She decided to work with one of the Federation’s member organizations, the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, to execute the program, since it already had infrastructure in place for aggregation and distribution. On May 16, just a week after she found out they had won the contract, the first delivery of 600 boxes went out to church groups serving food insecure communities in cities like Biloxi and Laurel, Mississippi.
Challenges and Successes
Leaders at The Common Market and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives noted that their operations were uniquely set up to execute this program because of existing infrastructure and prior experience with USDA grants. And King, at NSAC, said they are outliers; many of the requirements were too difficult for individual small farms or smaller coops to meet on their own.
Redden said that managing the paperwork and figuring out the requirements, not all of which were clear during the application process, has been particularly challenging. On the day she spoke to Civil Eats, she was working late to complete an audit she had just received from the USDA. “We have to adhere to the same requirements and regulations as the larger companies,” she said. “It takes a toll . . . and we don’t have all the same resources.”
The costs of moving the food have also been higher than she expected, but Redden said she was confident they were addressing that issue. Food Bank News recently reported that many food banks receiving food from the Food Bank program are struggling with the logistical costs of moving the boxes.
“Many people did not start getting hungry when COVID-19 hit—it’s just accentuated the problem, and it’s brought it to everyone’s attention.”
How well the boxes are combating rising food insecurity may also be difficult to measure over the long term.
In Georgia, Bill Green, the executive director of The Common Market Southeast, said the communities his team is serving were struggling before the pandemic. “Many of the people that we are now coming in contact with did not start getting hungry when COVID-19 hit,” he said. “It’s just accentuated the problem, and it’s brought it to everyone’s attention.”
Green’s team is now distributing over 15,000 Food Boxes to food-insecure residents of Atlanta and Birmingham every week. He also had to scale up operations for the USDA contract and is employing about 30 people a day. Some are assembling boxes, others are adding produce, wrapping boxes, or loading them onto refrigerated trucks.
The Common Market Southeast is sourcing food from 40 to 50 farms within its 250-mile radius, including some bigger farms they had to bring on for the contract. “It’s all locally grown. It’s all fresh. It’s just good food,” Green said, in the midst of the hustle, which could be over before the end of June.
Some of the contracts will be renewed for additional periods, depending on ongoing need. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives already got word that theirs will be extended through the end of August. Redden, for one, is enthusiastically optimistic about the progress the organization has made so far and the impact it will make throughout the summer.
“It allowed us to aggregate from our producers and then to distribute in and around those communities that are so underserved in the first place,” she said. “So, we’re able to do exactly what it is that we set out to—support our farmers and support those communities.”