Farmers to Families Food Box Program Extended | Bite Club

Farmers to Families Food Box Program Extended


Vermont dairy in the Farmers to Families food boxes - COURTESY ABBEY GROUP
  • Courtesy Abbey Group
  • Vermont dairy in the Farmers to Families food boxes
The USDA has awarded contract extensions to two Vermont-based organizations distributing Farmers to Families food boxes to those in need due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Of the additional $8.5 million awarded, the Abbey Group, a family-owned food service management company based in Enosburg Falls, received just over $8 million. The balance went to Willing Hands Enterprises, a Norwich-based nonprofit that serves the Upper Valley. This brings total program contract value to Vermont organizations to almost $14 million.

The next phase of the program, which starts July 6, will include significantly more Vermont  produce as the growing season gathers momentum, said Nina Hansen, vice president of operations for the Abbey Group. Food boxes will also be distributed at more sites statewide, especially smaller ones, to reduce wait times, minimize traffic and increase overall efficiency. Pre-registration is strongly encouraged to ensure people receive boxes.

Distribution of the fresh food boxes will no longer be paired with shelf-stable meals such as MRE (meals, ready to eat), which are not currently being distributed in Vermont.

Since the pandemic hit, food insecurity has spiked. The latest research, released in May from Feeding America, estimates that the number of food insecure people in Vermont has increased by 46 percent because of job losses and economic disruptions, said Nicole Whalen, director of communications for the Vermont Foodbank. Estimates of child food insecurity show a 60 percent jump, she said.

Whalen added that recently released census data "shows that hunger and food insecurity in Vermont is currently higher than it reached at any point during the Great Recession."

The national Farmers to Families program was authorized to spend up to $3 billion to address pandemic-related food insecurity, while also providing markets for American-grown food and generating business for regional and local distributors. With the recently announced extension to August 31, the USDA has now awarded almost $2.4 billion.

The program launched in Vermont on May 15 with the first 1,000 boxes sourced by the Abbey Group distributed in Berlin.  As of June 23, Hansen said Vermonters had received more than 758,000 pounds of fresh produce; 225,000 pounds of dairy products; almost 80,000 gallons of milk; and more than 652,000 pounds of precooked chicken.

Since mid-May, the Abbey Group has worked steadily to add Vermont farmers and food producers to the program. Kingdom Creamery of East Hardwick has recently come onboard as a fluid milk supplier; Maplebrook Farm in North Bennington and Shelburne Farms are both providing cheese.

Thomas Dairy, a Rutland-based dairy processor and distributor working with local farmers, has been involved since the start. Fifth-generation family member and co-owner, Abbey Thomas, said that the program has not only helped put excess milk to good use but "true to our little state, [it] comes full circle; Vermonters helping Vermonters."

Hansen said that partnerships with Black River Produce in North Springfield, Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick and Deep Root Organic Co-op in Johnson are facilitating increased sourcing from Vermont farms. She expects boxes through the rest of the summer to include locally grown vegetables such as zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

The Abbey Group will continue to work closely with the Vermont Foodbank and the State Emergency Operations Center to distribute food boxes. The expanded list of distribution locations is being finalized, said Erica Bornemann, director of Vermont Emergency Management. It will be available on the VEM and Vermont Foodbank websites, and via their social media channels.

When the new schedule is set, Vermonters can sign up for Farmers to Families boxes via the Vermont Department of Human Resources food help page. The pre-registration system has been in place and working well since the second week of June, Bornemann said.  In addition, the state's food help page provides information on other forms of food assistance. Vermonters can also call 2-1-1.

"The collaborative effort from everyone is what has made this program a success," Hansen said. Citing the many distribution events she's attended, she added, "People are so appreciative, it makes you emotional." 

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