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Farm food box program extended

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced another $1.5 billion to purchase food for a fifth round of the Farmers to Families Food Box program, helping those affected by the ongoing pandemic.

The announcement was made Jan. 4, and contracts to eligible organizations were awarded Jan. 19. Deliveries are expected to begin soon and continue through April.

“The Farmers to Families Food Box program continues to provide a win-win opportunity for consumers and farmers,” Tony Banks, senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, said.

This round focuses on combination boxes containing fresh produce, dairy and meat products, and milk. To date, more than 132 million food boxes have been distributed through the USDA program.

The need for food boxes continues, Kathlyn Terry Baker, CEO of Appalachian Sustainable Development, which operates Appalachian Harvest Food Hub in Scott County, said. The organization partnered with contracted companies to help distribute USDA food boxes to families, food banks and pantries in Southwest Virginia.

“One food pantry in Buchanan County saw the number of families they needed to serve double from 350 to 700,” Baker said. “As time went on, and we received more boxes, we’d have lines of cars and food pantry box trucks at our facility.”

ASD accepted four tractor trailer loads of combination boxes each week for distribution—around 2.2 million pounds of food. In addition to helping distribute for the USDA program, ASD bought bins of produce directly from regional farmers for donation.

While Baker said they haven’t been able to work with local and regional farmers as much as they’d hoped, the USDA program has helped farmers overall.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, some farmers saw the markets for their products evaporate overnight,” Baker explained. “This program recognized the importance of immediately addressing that issue while also addressing the dramatic impact COVID-related closures had on our communities.”

And though the majority of Virginia’s produce has already been harvested, “we still have cole crops, apples and meat and dairy that could be used to fill food boxes,” Banks said.

David Thomas, director of corporate sales for Produce Source Partners, a Virginia food service distributor, said the program “allows us to buy farm commodities from other farmers.”

Based in Ashland, Produce Source Partners was awarded USDA contracts in rounds three and four, and just received another award for round five—the only company servicing Virginia. In the earlier rounds, the company distributed approximately 700,000 USDA food boxes of 4,200 tons of fresh produce throughout Virginia, Thomas said.

“It’s a really wonderful program, truly benefitting everyone from farmers to families in need.”