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It was a startling headline last week: “Maine will miss out on $3 billion food program aimed at helping food pantries.”
That’s a lot of money, and there are very concerning projections about food insecurity in Maine during the COVID-19 pandemic, so count us among those troubled that our state saw zero successful bids for the Farmers to Families Food Box program.
The general idea behind this program, which partners with food suppliers to purchase and distribute fresh products to food banks and other non-profits serving people in need, is a good one. At a time when some food suppliers are experiencing a decrease in demand and food banks are seeing increased need for their services, it makes complete sense to try to address these problems together.
But as Good Shepherd Food Bank President Kristen Miale pointed out to the BDN, despite taking some innovative steps, this program from the USDA fails to match the reality of food distribution in Maine.
The fact that the program requires the use of a family-sized box is a perfect, if unfortunate, example of its one-size-fits-all approach.
“The development of USDA’s food box program was hasty, confusing, and not transparent,” Rep. Chellie Pingree told the BDN in a statement. “The awardees were arbitrary and chosen without demonstrating if they had the capacity to address our nation’s food insecurity. The agency didn’t emphasize local or choose a contractor who will buy from Maine farmers or deliver to hungry Mainers.”
Miale said that while the program’s structure of having distributors pack the boxes and deliver them directly to food banks may work in more urban areas, and places that have larger food distributors, but it is less workable in Maine where Good Shepherd, the state’s largest hunger relief organization, acquires and then distributes food to many smaller local pantries. Under the current food box program requirements, that could lead to an inefficient unpacking and repacking of the boxes.
“The double impact of a program like this was that we thought we could support Maine businesses and feed Maine people,” Miale said last week after Maine received zero successful bids. “To not be able to leverage any of those federal dollars is concerning.”
The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is similarly concerned about Maine essentially being left out of this round of food box program funding. Department Commissioner Amanda Beal wrote a letter to the USDA on Thursday asking for a second round of bids and increased flexibility in the program.
“We ask that the USDA strongly consider reopening the bidding process for this fall, which will give distributors and partners in Maine adequate time to thoughtfully develop a plan to implement this program,” Beal wrote.
Miale said Good Shepherd is working with Pineland Farms in Aroostook County to develop a bid, and would also like to see more flexibility in the program, particularly the ability to skip the step that includes the aggregation and packaging in boxes. We agree. The USDA needs to think outside the box — literally — and allow for more of a focus on the products and the people involved, and less on the packaging.
“Additionally, we suggest that the USDA consider enhancing flexibility of the design and
assembly of boxes to allow for local producer boxes, filled with state-produced vegetables, dairy, and meat products that may be distributed across smaller regions throughout each state,” Beal added in here letter. “Local partners know first-hand how to maximize efficiency, reduce food safety issues, and streamline labor and distribution methods.”
The food box program aims to help farmers, food distributors and people who are food insecure all at the same time. But without adjustment, it won’t be helping any of those people here in Maine. It’s also just one piece of a big, complicated farm and hunger relief puzzle during the pandemic that already includes $16 billion in direct relief to farmers. Pingree has argued that flawed USDA rulemaking has essentially put this support “out of reach to local and regional growers.”
Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King helped introduce the Farming Support to States Act in the Senate last week, which would provide $1 billion in food and agricultural aid to states. Pingree has cosponsored the legislation in the House.
In addition to the USDA moving forward with a second, more flexible round of the food box program, Congress should act to provide more direct aid to states so they can work with farmers, food distributors, food banks and others to target funds in a way that better reflects local realities.
Continuing to help food producers and food insecure people through this pandemic will require more out of the box thinking, and a healthy serving of flexibility and understanding that the food system challenges being felt right now in Iowa or Florida are not necessarily the same as those here in Maine.