Since mid-May, a massive, federally-funded food program has put boxes of food into the hands of thousands of Vermonters. The program has been a boon to farmers and local food companies, but questions persist about whether it’s the best way to feed the hungry.
The Vermont National Guard and its partners have perfected their work since the first, chaotic free food event in Berlin in mid-May. On that day, 1,900 cars showed up at the local airport and jammed traffic for miles. Some left in frustration after waiting for up to six hours.
It was a different experience last Friday for Kelly Conant of Milton. She got an assigned time online, so when she drove up to the distribution site at the Shelburne Museum, mask-wearing soldiers had the food in her minivan within minutes.
The hard part, she said, was asking for help.
“I grew up on farm, grew up where — I've always worked, and provided," she said. "To have to ask is hard. It’s hard, you know, you always do well for so long, and then something fast just kind of hits you, and then you don’t know what to do.”
Conant has kept her job at a store through the crisis, but she said her husband was laid off. The ample food box, with about 20 pounds of fresh produce, seven pounds of cheese, several gallons of milk and 20 pounds of pre-cooked chicken, helps feed her family.
“You’re not alone, and there’s people that will help you if you ask,” she said. “[This] definitely makes up that slack, of what we’re missing right now.”
The Farmers to Families Food Box program – the formal name is the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program – is a signature piece of the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. It’s had mixed success around the country, although the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it’s distributed 20 million boxes so far.
In Vermont, the only real logistical hang-up was that first day in Berlin. But anti-hunger experts say the food box program was designed to help farmers first, and feed people second.
“It came together very quickly, without the input of anti-hunger advocates or people who have experience doing mass feeding, like this is requiring,” said Nicole Whelan, communications director for the Vermont Foodbank, the statewide non-profit tapped to help with the food distribution.
“Essentially, they issued a RFP [request for proposal] for distributors throughout the country to bid on the opportunity to purchase, pack, and deliver food – produce, dairy and meat – for people in need,” she said.
That’s where the Abbey Group, based in Franklin County, came in. The family-owned food service company started small 25 years ago with a restaurant in Sheldon, later adding some local contracts for school meals and corporate dining rooms. It now operates in four states.
Nina Hansen, the Abbey’s senior vice president, said the company scrambled to meet the government’s request for proposal.
“I think we had two and a half days actually to put it a bid, and you know, talk to farmers, talk to dairies, and try to get as much legwork done as we possibly could,” she said. “And we were awarded the contract. We were thrilled.”
Vermont's initial contract for May through June was for $5.4 million, and the lion’s share went to the Abbey Group. The Abbey in turn worked with regional dairy processors and food wholesalers like Black River Produce and Reinhart Foods, to source and assemble the boxes. The Abbey Group just landed the bulk of a new $8.5 million contract to extend the food program through August.
Hansen said the federal money has helped the family-owned company offset other losses from their restaurant and school business. As the work scaled up, Abbey actually hired people to pack boxes of cheese.
For milk processors, like Thomas Dairy in Rutland, the program also came at a critical time.
“They’re able to not dump any milk, but also put some of the milk into cheese-making,” Hansen said. “We’re carrying a Thomas Dairy cheddar, so that’s cool.”
Cabot has also supplied cheese, and Hansen is working with other producers to include more Vermont dairy products. The emphasis is on buying local, with about half the produce in the boxes coming from Vermont suppliers. The pre-cooked chicken, though, comes from Brakebrush Chicken, a Wisconsin company.
Hansen said the food box program has built on Vermont’s already strong local food network.
“It helps our farmers out, and is helping to develop a resilient local food system that, if anything happened where we’re cut off from Florida, or Georgia, or California, you know, Vermont can feed itself,” she said.
But John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank, said the program presents huge logistical challenges, and may not be the most effective way to serve those who need it.
“This program was designed for farmers and food distributors,” he said. “The design of the program and the reasons for it were not really about feeding people.”
Sayles said just think of all the handling, packing, loading and unloading it takes to get all this stuff in one place.
“Mass food distribution is logistically challenging. It’s expensive, people get what they get,” he said. “You don’t get to choose what’s the right food. It’s not culturally appropriate. It’s not appropriate to medical conditions people may have.”
The best way to feed people isn't some high profile new initiative, he said, but the food stamp program first conceived in the 1960s by two senators on the opposite ends of the political spectrum: Kansas Republican Bob Dole and South Dakota Democrat George McGovern. It’s still run by the USDA and is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
In Vermont, recipients get a special debit card they use to buy the food of their choice. In March, about 70,000 people were enrolled, and got $10.7 million in benefits.
“We’re really encouraging people to sign up for that,” Sayles said. “That way you can access food without having to make plans on somebody else’s schedule to show up in your car and have boxes of food put in the trunk.”
Sayles would like to see the federal government broaden SNAP's income eligibility standards — for a family of four it’s now about $3,900 a month — so more could get help during this economic crisis.
Human Services Secretary Mike Smith agrees, although he praises the National Guard and others involved in the Vermont food box effort.
“We need to get those in need onto sustainable programs, food assistance programs, SNAP or 3Squares as we call it in Vermont,” Smith said at Gov. Phil Scott’s Monday press briefing. “We need to give those in need some dignity in how we distribute food to them.”
Nicole Whalen of the Foodbank says the farmer food box idea was kicking around the USDA for a while as an alternative to food stamps. But it became reality in the early days of the COVID crisis, when the administration wanted to help farmers and food distributors.
“And so this is essentially a bailout for those industries,” she said. "It’s product that needs to be purchased from farmers, it's giving money to businesses to do it. It really has left people who are actually struggling with hunger as an afterthought.”
At the Shelburne Museum last Friday, Carol Forguites of Burlington picked up two sets of food, one for her and one for a neighbor who has four children.
“I’m doing for two households, and we share it all,” she said. “Yeah, it definitely helps right now. I just started running an air conditioner, which made me a little nervous, because I want to be able to pay my bills. It costs more to do everything now.”
She says the online registration process was easy, but she worries about people who don’t have computers or can’t get through on the phone.
National Guard soldiers nearby took a break in the shade of truck with a cold drink and a slice of pizza. Team leader Dan Deslauriers said that after six weeks of experience, they’ve gotten pretty good at moving boxes.
“I mean, we’re really efficient with this,” he said. “There’s other states that are asking us what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
They planned to hand out 830 sets of food at Shelburne Museum, about two sets per car, assuming everybody who registered showed up. Any leftovers are sent to the Foodbank.
“We don’t want to go back with any food at the end of the day, so we’re trying to run the numbers, but we end up having to take some back, and then having to coordinate with that, to have the other trucks come and take that away,” Deslauriers said. “It’s been kind of challenging in that aspect.”
Deslauriers was in Wilmington earlier in the month, the same area of the Deerfield Valley where he served in 2011 after Tropical Storm Irene. The difference now, he says, is that this disaster is slow rolling.
“The hurricane came through initially, washed everything out. You kind of knew, you could kind of set up a timeline of where and when it was going to end,” he said. “But this one, you don’t know when it’s going to end. Depending on when the so-called 'second wave' hits, you don’t know.”
The next round of the food box distribution will be in smaller, more regional sites, like local food pantries, to make it even easier for people in all parts of the state to access the free food.