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It is surprising title last week: “Maine will miss a $ 3 billion food program aimed at helping food kitchens.”
That’s a lot of money, and there is very concerning projections about food insecurity in Maine during the COVID-19 pandemic, so let’s say we are among those who have problems so that our country doesn’t see a successful offer for the Farmer Lunch Box program.
The general idea behind this program, which partners with food suppliers to buy and distribute fresh products to food and other non-profit banks that serve people in need, is good. While some food suppliers are experiencing a decline in demand and food banks are seeing an increased need for their services, it makes sense to try to tackle this problem together.
But as President Good Shepherd Food Bank, Kristen Miale pointed out to BDN, despite taking some innovative steps, the program from the USDA does not match the reality of food distribution in Maine.
The fact that the program requires the use of family-sized boxes is a perfect example, if unfortunate, of a one-size approach for all.
“The development of the USDA lunch box program is hasty, confusing, and not transparent,” Chellie Pingree told BDN in a statement. “The scholarship recipients are chosen arbitrarily and chosen without showing whether they have the capacity to overcome our country’s food insecurity. The agency does not emphasize local or select contractors who will buy from Maine farmers or send to hungry Mainers. “
Miale said that while the program structure had distributors packing boxes and sending them directly to food banks could work in more urban areas, and places that had larger food distributors, but that was less applicable in Maine where Good Shepherd, The state’s largest hunger relief organization, obtains and then distributes food to many local small kitchens. Under the current requirements of the lunch box program, which can lead to inefficient dismantling and repackaging of the box.
“The double impact of programs like this is that we think we can support Maine businesses and feed Maine people,” Miale said last week after Maine received zero successful bids. “To not be able to use one of these federal dollars is cause for concern.”
The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry is also concerned about Maine which is basically not included in the funding of this lunch box program. Department Commissioner Amanda Beal writing a letter to the USDA on Thursday asking for a second round of offers and increased flexibility in the program.
“We ask the USDA to strongly consider reopening the bidding process for this fall, which will give distributors and partners in Maine sufficient time to develop plans to implement this program,” Beal wrote.
Miale said Good Shepherd worked with Pineland Farms in Aroostook County to develop offerings, and also wanted to see more flexibility in the program, especially the ability to skip steps that included aggregation and packing in boxes. We agree. The USDA needs to think outside the box – literally – and allow more focus on the products and people involved, and less on packaging.
“In addition, we suggest that the USDA consider increasing design flexibility
“assembling boxes to enable local producer boxes, filled with state-produced vegetables, dairy products and meat that can be distributed in smaller regions in each state,” Beal added in his letter here. “Local partners know firsthand how to maximize efficiency reducing food safety issues and streamlining labor and distribution methods. “
The lunch box program aims to help farmers, food distributors and people who feel food insecurity at the same time. But without adjustments, it won’t help anyone in Maine. It was also just a piece of a large farm, the puzzle of hunger and hunger during the pandemic that was included $ 16 billion in direct assistance to farmers. Pingree believes that the creation of defective USDA regulations has basically placed this support “beyond the reach of local and regional farmers.”
Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King helped introduce Agriculture Support for State Law in the Senate last week, which will provide $ 1 billion in food and agricultural assistance to the state. Pingree has sponsored a law in the House of Representatives.
In addition to the USDA moving forward with the second round, more flexible than the lunch box program, Congress must act to provide more direct assistance to countries so they can work with farmers, food distributors, food banks and others to target funds in ways that better reflect local reality.
Continuing to help food producers and food insecure people through this pandemic will require more thought, and the presentation of flexibility and healthy understanding that the challenges of the food system currently felt in Iowa or Florida are not necessarily the same as those here in Maine.