By Billy Mitchell, NFU FSMA Training Coordinator

Like most rural back roads, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farmers to Families Food Box Program has had a few bumps along the way. But it’s also done what those dirt roads do: connect farmers to their communities and bring fresh, safe, and nutritious produce to friends and family in need. Over the past few years, National Farmers Union (NFU) has been working with two groups in Georgia who are now getting these boxes into hands and trunks across the Southeast.

The Common Market Southeast is part of a $5.7 million contract that allows the food hub to purchase  food from farmers and package it into 15,000 “Farm-Fresh Boxes,” which they then deliver to food banks, churches, and various nonprofits like the YMCA throughout Georgia and Alabama. The contract was recently renewed, allowing the nonprofit to continue serving its local grower network and communities in need through the end of August 2020.

America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia, which serves the 16,000 residents of Brunswick, Georgia, has been receiving boxes similar to those The Common Market distributes.  I’ve been able to join other community volunteers, food bank staff, and the National Guard to get boxes into the trunks of hundreds of cars that line up for blocks. Each week, in a little under two hours, we are able to help feed at least 500 families.

For the farmers, it’s been a win-win – providing support for those in need while also providing an opportunity to keep their farms afloat. “Seeing our shiitake mushrooms reaching local communities warms our hearts and makes us proud of what we do every day,” shared Howard Berk of Ellijay Mushrooms, a mushroom farm located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. “The Common Market has given us a lifeline in these uncertain times with the opportunity to supply our mushrooms in the USDA farm boxes.”

Before the pandemic, Ellijay Mushrooms did most of its business with local restaurants. “That dried up pretty quick,” Berk said. Suddenly without a market to sell to, the company considered layoffs – but then the Farmers to Families Food Box program came along. They’ve seen so much  business that they reversed those plans, instead hiring on additional employees. “This opportunity has allowed us to keep our amazing, hardworking, mushroom-loving team intact.”

Kalista Morton of Second Harvest values the flexibility the boxes provide and the opportunity to work cooperatively with other groups in the community. “Instead of reinventing the wheel, we can piggyback on existing programs and be creative around distribution. We are able to bring the boxes to where people are already being served through our Partner Agencies.” She has been similarly enthusiastic about the abundance and quality of fresh produce. “This may be the first time in a while people have seen some of this fresh food . . . people get so excited, opening the boxes and seeing fresh broccoli!”

We Love BuHi, an Atlanta-based charitable nonprofit that advocates for immigrant communities, receives more than 250 boxes of fruits and vegetables through the program each week. “The integrity of each box was nothing short of: We care with purpose,” said Lily Pabian, the organization’s executive director. “My husband—who was helping with the unloading from pallets—made the comment, ‘This is what’s gonna make the difference, access to fresh foods.’”

For many families, the boxes have been a lifeline during troubling times. Jamane Scott from Second Harvestis aware that for some, “it will take time to get back to a stable place, so it’s great we are able to do this to help those that are in need.” Alley Staples, who works at the Atlanta YMCA, expressed that “Everyone was blown away by the quality of the food!”  

Though it has had some success, the Farmers to Families Food Box Program alone is not enough to address a growing food insecurity crisis in the United States. According to Feeding America, more than 54 million people could experience hunger this year, a 45 percent increase over pre-pandemic levels. Food banks provide critical stopgap nutrition assistance, but ultimately, they aren’t designed to feed so many people over an extended period of time.

To supplement the work they are doing, Congress should also expand benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps – a fact that even food banks agree with. Because the program relies on pre-existing infrastructure – namely, grocery stores ­– it’s easier to scale up quickly when food insecurity rises. Additionally, it avoids some of the stigma associated with food pantries, gives recipients more power to choose what they want to eat, and supports local businesses. In fact, every dollar spent on SNAP contributes between $1.54 and $1.74 to the economy.

In the meantime, you can see and feel the struggle this pandemic is creating as trunk after trunk after trunk is opened to receive boxes of food. But, among the volunteers and those there for boxes, you also see the smiles and gratitude for the chance to connect and be of service where and when we can. More than just sustenance, the boxes create an opportunity for farmers and their communities to do what they do best: give back and give thanks to and for each other.

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