Food pantries struggle with abundance of meat, milk as USDA triples food buys

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Christopher Walljasper/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

The USDA began delivering milk in half gallons, but switched to full gallons, which present a challenge for food pantries and recipients, many of whom rely on public transportation.

When patrons of the food pantry at Harmony Community Baptist Church walk into the basement on Wednesday mornings, many are overwhelmed by the quality and quantity of the food they receive.

“You’ve got the vegetables, you’ve got the fruits, you’ve got white potatoes,” said Michael Taylor, a resident who’s been coming to the pantry in Chicago’s west side Lawndale neighborhood for nearly a year. “And you’ve got the main course - the meat. It doesn’t get better than this.”

Taylor said it feels good to be able to provide fresh milk and balanced meals for his kids. Since the USDA began buying meat, produce and dairy from U.S. farmers last fall, the food people receive from food pantries has been more fresh and more nutritious. But it’s also presented challenges for those who get the food from growers fields to the dinner tables that need it across the country.

The first round of the USDA’s Trade Mitigation food purchase and distribution program was announced in August 2018, as a way of helping farmers hurt by the ongoing trade disputes with China, Mexico and other countries.

As of June 12, the agency purchased $748 million of the promised $1.2 billion in food from U.S. producers, according to the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

An agency spokesperson said the remaining $450 million will be completed by January of 2020. The agency has promised an additional $1.3 billion in food purchases, but has not laid out a timeline for the additional buys.

Michael Taylor said the increase in meat at the pantry means his family eats better meals.

The majority of the food purchased through the USDA’s trade mitigation plan is destined for food banks and pantries, through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Some food may also be made available to The National School Lunch Program, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which primarily delivers food to elderly Americans and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.

TEFAP has distributed an average of $540 million dollars worth of food each year since 2014. Adding the food purchased through the two trade mitigation programs will increase the annual average five fold. The National School Lunch Program has purchased an average of $1.3 billion a year since 2014.

Greg Trotter, the senior manager of public relations at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, said the organization received nearly double the food it normally received from the USDA in a year. The depository has received 22 million pounds of food from the USDA, up from 12 million pounds in 2018.

“We’ve been just swimming in milk and apples this year. We’ve got boxes of apples up to the ceiling in our coolers,” said Trotter. “It’s definitely been a challenge, logistically, both for us and our partner agencies. But we still feel like it’s a net positive, on the whole.”

Logistics of the last food mile

Odice Anderson, one of the volunteers at Harmony Community Baptist Church, said for many of their patrons, the additional food has had other benefits. He remembers one woman’s reaction to the extra food.

Odice Anderson, a volunteer at Harmony Community Baptist Church’s food pantry, goes up and down these stairs dozens of times, unloading food from trucks and carrying carts up the stairs for patrons.

“She stood and cried and told her kids how much of a blessing it was. She said, ‘this month, we’ll pay the light bill.’”

But getting that additional food home can present its own challenges.

Diane Carioscio, food pantry coordinator at Harmony Community Baptist Church, said many patrons use public transportation to get to the pantry. Some have even turned down extra food, because getting it home on a train just isn’t feasible.

“We had this one woman come through. The whole way she was like, ‘What a blessing, what a blessing! I’ve never gotten this much food before,’” said Carioscio.

But an hour later, she said the woman was still outside, waiting on a ride.

“She was in tears. She said, ‘I can’t get this home.’ She physically couldn’t get it,” said Carioscio. One of the volunteers helped her to the train, but the woman still had to get off the train and home. “We think of ourselves as the last mile, but sometimes they have a full mile to go, walking.”

Ted Schroeder, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University said that, even though these purchases are not intended to displace food normally be purchased for government programs, it may be offsetting other food items for hungry Americans.

“We aren’t simply eating more,” said Schroeder. “It’s just going to displace other food.”

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service said in an email that the trade mitigation purchases are not  intended to replace normal food orders.

 “Many of the foods being offered under trade mitigation are not foods that USDA would normally offer through the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP),” said a Food and Nutrition Service representative.

Taylor said before the USDA was delivering meat and produce, he would take more beans and rice to keep his family fed.

Struggling with storage

Trotter said the Greater Chicago Food Depository has expanded its cold storage in recent years, but it’s still had to rely on off-site storage for the USDA’s food deliveries. He worries that smaller food banks won’t be able to handle the influx of perishable food.

Carioscio said the meat and milk have to be handed out the same day they’re delivered. They just don’t have the room to store it in the church’s basement.

“If we have two crock pots on in the kitchen, we blow the circuit. So bringing in a large refrigerator to handle this just isn’t feasible,” she said.

Trotter said his group recommended changes to the USDA on how they deliver the food. While it may be easier for the agency to deliver full gallons of milk, for the people who need the food, half gallons are more manageable. Food Depository officials also recommended the USDA order applesauce instead of fresh apples, so pantries can keep them longer without worrying about spoilage.

The Harmony Community Baptist Church gets the majority of its food from The Greater Chicago Food Depository.

“There are times where we’ve gotten three truckloads of apples in one week,” said Trotter. “Thirty-five thousand pounds of apples, and it’s not expected. When you add something like that to regular operations, it’s challenging.”

Trotter said the Food Depository has been working with the USDA to get more notice before deliveries as well. As the agency has doubled the amount of food it plans to buy from farmers, food banks will be receiving a surplus of food for at least another year, even if trade deals are reached. He hopes the USDA will take feedback from food pantries and distribution centers and improve future deliveries.

“There could be lessons learned on both sides,” said Trotter. “It could be good for farmers and food banks.”

Editor's note: This story was updated on July 2, 2019, to correct and clarify that executives from the Greater Chicago Food Depository made recommendations to the USDA on food pantry deliveries, not their spokesman, Greg Trotter, as originally reported.