SAN ANTONIO – As the economic slowdown increased the demand for food banks around the country, the United States Department of Agriculture created a program to help with the demand and help producers as well.
The Farmers-to-Families Food Box program provides fresh produce, dairy and protein to families in need. According to the USDA, the program launched in May and saw food purchases of $947 million.
Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, said the program has been a great help in a time of need.
“USDA saw this need nationwide with long lines at food banks, seeing this unprecedented response to families who were laid off and furloughed,” Cooper said.
“It was that surplus where then, you know, maybe farms are being destroyed; food was being wasted. Food banks were like, ‘Hey, we’ve got an unprecedented need. There’s surplus in the supply chain. Let’s connect the two,’” Cooper continued.
The first round of the program occurred between May 15 and June 30, with one vendor securing a contract for the San Antonio area. Cooper said there were some issues that the vendor was not prepared for, causing it not to fulfill the number of boxes it was supposed to.
“The context of our work is is pretty complex, and for a lot of the vendors, they just didn’t fully understand what it was going to take to acquire the food, get it boxed and then do this truck-to-trunk model, which was what USDA had proposed,” Cooper said. “We struggled because we thought that our local contractor was going to be able to meet the needs of a lot of the distributions we set up and coordinated based on their direction. But then ultimately not getting the volume of food (we needed) caused us (to look) for food from others or from our community to be able to meet that need.”
Cooper said he believes the contractor underestimated what was needed to make the program work.
“You have to have the right equipment, Cooper said. “You have to be able to provide on-site refrigeration when it comes to coordinating the families. You have to have qualifications in place and invite them to a distribution site where this product then would be distributed. There’s a lot of event work.”
Cooper said the USDA ended up keeping some of the money from the first round and distributed it to vendors selected to help with the second round of boxes.
“We’re still starting to see a lot more food, and so that’s just been a wonderful thing there in the second round, which runs for July and August, and then the third round will start in September,” Cooper said.
Cooper said the next round of funding for this program in September and October may be the end of it. He said no matter what happens, the food bank still has a mission to feed those in need.
“I know that we will be working as diligently as we can to make sure that we have the inventory to feed our communities. And that’s not just San Antonio, that’s all of South Texas,” Cooper said. “We just know that we’re going to need more public support in this unprecedented time and promise to be a good steward over those resources.”