Have Local Food Hubs Proved They Should Play a Bigger Role in Emergency Food Aid?

by Lisa Elaine Held

Published: 3/04/21, Last updated: 3/04/21

Last April, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it was seeking contractors to execute its new Farmers to Families Food Box program, Anthony Mirisciotta was in the midst of scrambling to get fresh asparagus and strawberries out of warehouse refrigerators and into the hands of people who would eat them.

Mirisciotta is the general manager of GrowFood Carolina, a 10-year-old food hub that aggregates produce and dairy products from 120 small farms in South Carolina and sells the food primarily to Charleston’s acclaimed restaurants. In the initial days of the pandemic, when restaurants closed, orders stopped coming in. Mirisciotta didn’t want to tell his farmers he couldn’t take their food, so the team began offering boxes of local food that families could pick up to eat at home. Demand was high, but it wasn’t enough. So while the application for the Food Box program involved a “crazy paperwork burden,” he was willing to spend days completing it. “It all moved so fast from that initial discovery of the program to ‘Okay, now you’re awarded for the next four weeks,” he remembered. “And by the way, it starts on Monday.”

GrowFood Carolina made it happen, and during the first two rounds of the program, they ended up purchasing 71,000 pounds of local produce. “When we would call growers to ask them for more products to fill these boxes, they’d say, ‘This is the fifth call today that I’ve received from a customer, and every one of the four calls before you was someone telling me they couldn’t take the product that they said they could,’” he said. He also witnessed how the program impacted those on the receiving end. With help from local hunger relief organizations, the team distributed 4,000 boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables to local families in need.

According to new evaluations of the program, GrowFood Carolina was one of many food hubs around the country that was able to quickly and effectively move excess food from farmers to hungry people, despite the fact that fresh food from small farms is rarely considered a reliable source of emergency food aid. Based on data and surveys, some advocates say the success of these distributors provides the USDA with concrete evidence that local food hubs and small farms can work within the agency’s parameters, and that because of that, they should be given increased access to federal food dollars in the future.

USDA has currently extended the program through April 2021 and insiders expect it will continue beyond that in some capacity, so they’re hoping these learnings can apply to improving the program itself and inform other agency purchases, leading to a broader, long-term shift towards including fresh food from small farms in hunger relief efforts. “Ultimately It’s about recognizing that the way in which they have been operating federal procurement to date is really specific to bulk food and price,” said Susan Lightfoot Schempf, co-director of the Wallace Center at Winrock International, an organization that has been working on resilient regional food systems since 1983. “So it’s been about food security only, but there are other agency goals like nutrition security, rural development, farmer economic viability, retention of farmland, and conservation. All of those can be achieved together by focusing those investments at the local and regional level.”

The timing might just be right: At a press event on March 3, recently confirmed Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that during his time at the USDA, the agency will expand food security efforts to include an emphasis on “nutrition security” and how the two issues are related. “Once you get your mindset focused on those two challenges, then you can address both…simultaneously,” he said. “I think in the past we’ve sort of looked at hunger over here and nutrition over there…but we haven’t married them, and I think it’s important.”

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program

In the first pandemic relief bill passed last spring, Congress allocated $3 billion for the USDA to purchase food that farmers couldn’t sell and get it to families facing food insecurity. The idea was to solve three related problems: help struggling farmers who had lost customers due to COVID-19, prevent food that they were still producing from going to waste, and provide another source of emergency food as rates of food insecurity skyrocketed due to lost jobs.

Initially the Food Box program faced widespread criticism due to missteps during its rollout. The USDA, for instance, awarded contracts to several vendors with no experience procuring or distributing food, like an event planning company in Texas.

But an analysis published in February by the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard University and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) found that many of the initial shortcomings could be attributed to how quickly the program was put together. “Even those participants who were unhappy with deliveries or who were disappointed with other aspects of the program were impressed by the speed with which a program of this novelty and scale was implemented,” the authors wrote. Just 45 days after the program was announced, contractors had already distributed five million food boxes.

Food Hubs and Small Farms Thrive

And in those early rounds, many food hubs landed contracts, and small farms were for the most part able to participate, said Wes King, a senior policy specialist at NSAC who worked on the report. “We were hearing things [from small farms] like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this with a lifeline for us. I don’t know if we would have survived the summer had we not had this opportunity to contribute to the boxes,’” he said. “It seemed like there was a lot of general success and early excitement around it.”

The team at the Wallace Center came to similar conclusions in a report they released in January. They surveyed 21 Food Box contractors that were sourcing from small, local farms and conducted in-depth interviews with seven of them. “The research indicates that the local and regional contractors were overwhelmingly successful in implementing the program, which provided a critically important outlet for small to midsize producers whose markets disappeared in the spring of 2020,” the report stated. “It shored up regional supply chains, and it provided fresh, healthy, culturally appropriate foods to emergency nutrition operations and the people they serve in urban and rural communities across the country.”

Schempf and her colleague Ellie Bomstein, a project manager on the Food Systems Leadership team, said that for several reasons, local and regional food hubs were uniquely positioned to effectively execute the program, starting with the resemblance the boxes bore to Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). “Putting food in boxes and delivering it directly to the consumer is something that the local food sector has been doing in lots of different ways for 35 years or longer,” Bomstein explained.

And while bigger food distributors work with well-established, specialized supply chains and farms, food hub operators are skilled at building supply chains from scratch and they’re used to working directly with different kinds of farms with diverse, varied products. “Their whole reason for being is aggregating inconsistent supply from a large number of producers and then really getting that to diversified market channels. It’s in their DNA to be adaptive and responsive in the way that this program required and that the pandemic response necessitated,” Schempf said. “The other thing that is a core value proposition for local and regional food hubs is relationships with community-based organizations and relationships across the supply chain and the community. So they were able to activate those last mile partners really quickly.”

For example, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which works with Black farmer coops in the South, was able to tap into its network, and members like the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives already had relationships with church groups serving food insecure communities. In Detroit, Michigan, Eastern Market Corporation linked up with 15 community non-profits, delivered boxes to community members on their own, and offered pick-up options at their markets.

Overall, in the first two rounds of the program, the 21 contractors the Wallace Center surveyed paid $28 million to 420 food producers and delivered 1.8 million boxes.

“Putting food in boxes and delivering it directly to the consumer is something that the local food sector has been doing in lots of different ways for 35 years or longer."

Ellie Bomstein

Project Manager, Food Systems Leadership

Then, when it was time for round three, the USDA changed the parameters and essentially cut all of the smaller operators out of the program. The agency did this by making price the determining factor for contracts and by requiring all boxes be “combination” boxes that included items like packaged meat, rather than just fresh produce. According to the Harvard/NSAC report, the number of contractors decreased from 198 in rounds one and two to 54 in round four.

King said the USDA’s rationale for the changes made sense on one hand — the agency said it wanted to focus more on getting food to hungry people, and the combination boxes were meant to ensure families were getting protein and other varied foods. “The things that we heard about through the report illustrated that there might have been good intentions, but it was not fully thought through,” he said. For instance, food banks receiving the combination boxes often didn’t have enough refrigerated space to store them all, so workers had to unpack the boxes to separate out shelf-stable items and keep fresh items like yogurt and cheese cold, and then repack the boxes before distributing them.

There have also been ongoing reports of low-quality food lacking nutritional value in the more price-conscious combination boxes coming from larger distributors. Families in North Carolina, for example, received boxes packed with hot dogs, processed cheese, and moldy grapes.

Food Boxes and the Future

That’s in sharp contrast to the earlier boxes filled with local food. “When you look at photos of the boxes that were being provided by some of these local organizations, it’s gorgeous fresh fruit and a ton of vegetable variety,” Schempf said. While emergency food aid is generally processed or at least shelf-stable, “this program proved that USDA can procure fresh produce, fresh dairy, etc. That in itself I think is a really important lesson.”

Schempf and her team have been sharing their findings with the agency, and pushing them to consider the fact that in terms of low-cost solutions to hunger alone, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the most effective and allows recipients to exercise personal agency. And as a supplement to that, the Farmers to Families Food Box program might be more effective at hitting many of the agency’s varied goals — including improving nutrition security, and ensuring farmer economic viability — if it reverted or reinvented its original attention to including local and regional producers.

While the program is currently set to expire in April, both Schempf and King said they’re hearing it may continue in some form, especially if the current COVID-19 relief package gets through Congress. “There is significant additional funding in that package for the USDA to purchase and distribute more commodities. They’re going to have money to do more,” King said, it’s just unclear exactly what that might look like.

At the March 3 press event, Vilsack said his team was going to be reviewing the program before deciding on next steps. He mentioned that the agency might be able to wrap some components into The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) or use lessons from the food boxes to improve TEFAP.  And he specifically mentioned investing in infrastructure “that will enable us to do a better job of providing perishable items.”

Beyond the Food Box program itself, both reports pointed to the idea that the success of these food hubs should be considered in other agency programs. “USDA commodity procurement…buys up significant amounts of food to channel into the school lunch program and to food banks,” Schempf said. “I think what’s been proven through this program is that [they] can work with smaller vendors at the local and regional level.”

The reports also pointed to the fact that many small farms upgraded their food safety certifications and made other changes to their operations in order to work within the program’s parameters. That could allow them to participate in more state-level hunger relief efforts and  give the farm to institution movement a boost post-pandemic. Food hubs may also now be better set up to serve food insecure communities on their own.

When GrowFood Carolina lost their Food Box contract in round three, Mirisciotta did not want to leave the struggling farmers and families they were working with in the lurch. “If at that point we stopped those efforts, that would have been it. It would have been the end of everything that we built in these communities. One week we’re there and the next week we’re not,” he said.

Instead, GrowFood Carolina designed its own program called Soil to Sustenance to continue providing the boxes. The team launched a fundraiser and hit a $200,000 goal in about five months. They also added an option to their CSA-style box program where buyers can donate a box when they order. Now, week after week, they’re still showing up with boxes to distribute to local families that need them. “We haven’t missed a beat when it comes to supporting farmers and supporting our communities in need,” Mirisciotta said, and at this point, they’ll continue “as long as the funding allows us to do so.”


Top photo by Deyan Georgiev/ Adobe Stock.

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