Ohio Valley Anti-Hunger Advocates Worry Region Overlooked In $1 Billion Federal Food Box Program

Food is ready for loading and distribution the Facing Hunger Food Bank in Huntington, West Virginia..

A new federal program is buying more than $1 billion in farm products such as dairy, produce and meat unable to be sold due to the pandemic’s disruptions to the food supply and send “food boxes” to needy families. But some anti-hunger advocates worry that parts of the Ohio Valley may be overlooked in getting this aid.

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, awarded approximately 200 companies across the country contracts to purchase food and then distribute it to local nonprofits and food pantries. Kentucky and West Virginia were among  12 states where no companies were awarded contracts. Contracts awarded to Ohio companies are located near Cleveland, apart from Appalachia.

“By and large, Kentucky was really left behind. We’re not really going to benefit on the supply side of Kentucky producers being able to provide their products,” said Tamara Sandberg, executive director for Feeding Kentucky, a nonprofit network of food banks in the state. “We’re definitely not going to benefit on the consumer side because we’ve not been named in any of the winning bids.”

Sandberg said she is aware of some organizations in Kentucky receiving food boxes. Dare to Care Food Bank in Louisville is receiving boxes with poultry and dairy products, for example. But she’s still concerned large swaths of the state are being left out of the program.

She also said several Kentucky food banks had reached out to New York-based Tasty Brands, a school food supplier who was awarded several contracts, about receiving food boxes but were told all their food boxes were already being delivered elsewhere. Sandberg said the specter of receiving little of this aid is especially worrisome, given the Ohio Valley has recently ranked among states with the highest rates of food insecurity among some age groups.

“There has been a 40 percent increase in the people served by the food bank network, and a third of those people have never come to a food bank for help before,” Sandberg said. “The need for this food assistance amid this pandemic has increased exponentially.”

Cynthia Kirkhart leads the Facing Hunger Food Bank in Huntington, West Virginia. She said despite several local companies applying for contracts through this program, none of those companies received contracts. Kirkhart said her organization wasn’t sure if they were going to receive aid until an out-of-state company from Pittsburgh that was awarded a contract reached out to her food bank. She said she’s expecting food boxes to be received Thursday.

“We’ll do what we need to, to access these food resources and see what happens,” Kirkhart said. “This had to happen really quick with a certain level of uncertainty, but we’re happy to have the product.”

A spokesperson with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service said in a statement that because the program is new, some adjustments may be made in coming weeks, and that USDA was working to try to expand the program to underserved regions of the country.

Some Democrats in the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, including Marcia Fudge of Ohio, have also questioned the USDA on the reported lack of experience some contract awardees have in distributing food. Contracts were awarded to major meatpacking companies including Cargill, and an event planning company. The program runs through June 30.