Local food pantries are preparing for the logistical puzzle posed by taking in more than 1.5 million pounds of free food from the federal government over the next several months.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning to buy $1.2 billion worth of food from farmers and distribute it to food banks across the country under one component of its Trade Mitigation Programs, a larger $12 billion aid package announced earlier this year to offset losses farmers are incurring due to ongoing trade disputes.
Other components of the aid package include direct payments to farmers and efforts to promote agricultural trade in several nations.
USDA spokesman Mike Illenberg said the department already has begun buying food from farmers, and distribution to food banks is scheduled to run from late December through March.
The USDA’s nutrition programs also include support for various school lunch programs. The Iowa Department of Education said the trade mitigation food likely won’t be made available to school districts here until food order periods start in early spring.
In the Corridor, the USDA will give the additional food to the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program Food Reservoir in Hiawatha, which in turn distributes food to 80 not-for-profits in Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Jones, Johnson Linn and Washington counties.
HACAP Food Reservoir Director Linda Gorkow said the organization expects to get more than 1.5 million pounds of food over the life of the program in addition to what the USDA usually delivers for other nutritional programs.
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The initial deliveries will have a mix of fresh produce, canned goods and frozen pork. Gorkow also said the USDA plans to deliver more fresh milk than usual to HACAP, although that isn’t specifically part of the farmer aid program.
So much food could prove a challenge to agencies, which might not have the capacity to store goods that need to be refrigerated or frozen. Just over half the money earmarked for food bank distribution will go toward buying pork, beef and dairy products.
HACAP recently installed a larger cooler-freezer in its warehouse and has floor space, but Gorkow said the goal is to make sure food is distributed to the pantries before it spoils or takes up too much storage.
“It will use a lot of our resources to make sure that food gets out,” she said. “ ... We have the ability to do it on an ongoing basis, but with such a large amount, we want to make sure we do it properly and it does take a lot of resources.”
Rural agencies in particular could strain HACAP’s resources, as those pantries don’t tend to have trucks that can make pickups on a weekly basis, Gorkow said. Instead, HACAP will have to make those deliveries.
Feeding America, the nonprofit that is coordinating the nationwide effort, estimates its member food banks would need between $200 to $300 million in extra funding to properly store and distribute all of the additional goods the USDA plans to give out.
The USDA usually distributes 700 million pounds of food through state officials to the nation’s largest food bank network, but that number is expected to more than double this year under the aid program.
Sarah Benson Witry, Johnson County Crisis Center’s food bank director, said the not-for-profit’s recently-finished warehouse expansion has made handling incoming food easier.
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However, the pantry is more challenged when donated perishables arrive and are close to spoiling, or if a large amount of one kind of food is donated around the same time and pushes capacity.
“I estimate that 95 percent of the time we can receive, store and give out any donation before it perishes,” she said.
The pantry could benefit from the additional fresh produce coming from the USDA. Witry said need for fresh goods spikes around this time of year as the growing season comes to an end.
John Boller, executive director of the Coralville Community Food Pantry, believes HACAP and its sister food banks will likely have to figure out how to store the food in the short term due to storage space issues at the individual pantries.
“It’s a need, but the storage piece is difficult,” Boller said, referring to the extra milk HACAP plans to distribute.
Although he’s glad for the windfall of food, Boller said the fact that the USDA needed to start a farmer aid program is concerning as it means farmers who grow the food aren’t making enough money
“I don’t want to see more farmers at my food pantry because they’re not able to farm,” he said.
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The WAsington Post and Madison Arnold of The Gazette contributed.