U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said Friday during a visit to the Food Bank of the Rockies in Denver that a new federal program to get fresh food to families as demand has soared amid the coronavirus pandemic is working, benefiting farmers, distributors and those in need.
“It’s a great win-win-win program,” Perdue said following a tour of one of the food bank’s warehouse facilities in northeast Denver with U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner.
“We purchase food from the farmers and put the distributors back to work that were serving the restaurant industry, and now the charitable organizations like our food banks, like this great one here, are helping to distribute this out all over the state.”
He added: “We’re delighted. It takes the cooperation of all three. These folks get to see the thrill of all the people picking up the food.”
The USDA’s $3 billion Farmers to Families Food Box Program works with distributors whose business has dwindled in recent months to purchase fresh produce, dairy and meat from producers who have seen demand from regular customers plummet, all while the economic downturn has meant more Americans require food assistance.
Food Bank of the Rockies, which distributes to hundreds of partner organizations in 30 Colorado counties and the entire state of Wyoming, has seen the amount of food passing through its warehouses every week nearly double since the coronavirus pandemic hit Colorado in early March, CEO Erin Pulling said.
“The good news is that during this COVID pandemic many people that have never been clients of food banks before have come and needed that food, and I’m glad it’s been available,” Perdue said.
PHOTOS: Colorado's senators join Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in tour of farm, food bank
Colorado Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet joined Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and other officials in a visit of Marc Arnusch Farms in Keenesburg before going to the Food Bank of the Rockies in Denver.
Gardner said that farmers and ranchers were singing the praises of the Farmers to Families program at an earlier Colorado Farm Bureau roundtable held at a family farm in Keenesburg with Perdue, Gardner and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
“They were talking about what happened when restaurants closed, when certain institutions closed, when schools closed. The ability to provide this food as part of this program really does help everyone,” Gardner said.
“It helps those in need, who needs food. It helps those farmers have an outlet so we’re not seeing the dumping or rotting of produce in the field; it actually comes here,” he said, pointing to a table displaying the contents of a food box. “Those potatoes are from the San Luis Valley, those onions are from Fort Morgan, Colorado. So this really is mutually beneficial to our ag producers, ... keeping them in shape from the last three months and making sure we’re taking care of those in need in our society.”
There’s more economic impact to come, Perdue said. “We’re in the process of extending the good performers that did a good job in the first (period).”
While Perdue said it “remains to be seen” whether the program will continue beyond its initial funding — “It’s probably a very expensive program to continue on a year-round basis,” he said — on Wednesday he announced an extension of the program to buy and distribute up to $1.16 billion of food from July 1 to Aug. 30, based on performance by contractors since May 15. The program has spent $1.2 billion in its initial phase.
“The efforts of everyone involved form the backbone of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program and its goal to help fill the hunger gap in all of our communities,” Perdue said in a release announcing the extension.
Gardner applauded the job the Food Bank of the Rockies and other organizations have done during the crisis.
“When you’re looking at the long list of heroes that have been part of this pandemic response — obviously, our first responders, health care workers, the people that work in our hospitals, but it’s the people that work in our food banks across the state of Colorado and across the country, quite frankly,” he said. “They’re seeing volumes that are just unparalleled. And they’ve kept at this pace, this tempo for three months. It’s been incredible to see.”
The food bank distributed 70 million pounds of food last year and recently added an additional warehouse to store and process food distributed through the Coronavirus Family Assistance Program, another new program among an array of programs it administers.
Since mid-March, Pulling said, the food bank has increased food distribution by 90%, but she noted that the organization is facing roughly $100,000 a month in added distribution costs, because in nearly every case, the additional supplies don’t come with more aid to distribute the food.