Distributor change leaves county food program up in the air

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | November 17, 2020 7:00 AM

After more than five months of providing meals to families in need, volunteers with the Lincoln County Food Box Distribution Program announced they were halting their food drives for the foreseeable future.

Roxanna Escudero, one of the program organizers, said she had to call off upcoming events after hearing that the distributor working with Montana Food Bank Network, the program’s supplier, does not have the resources to bring meals to Lincoln County.

“[I] wanted to truly cry, because I know how much it has helped our communities and all our local people, friends and families,” Escudero said after receiving the news.

For 1,456 families throughout the county, the roughly weekly food drive has served as a lifeline during the coronavirus pandemic. During the last food box distribution event on Oct. 23, many residents expressed their gratitude for efforts made by the volunteers.

Ada Westlake, a Libby resident who recently suffered a heart attack, said she depended on the meal boxes to get through October.

“I get to the point where I don’t get [many] food stamps and all my money goes out on bills,” she said.

Debbie Switzer, who came to pick up meals for the Western Montana Mental Health Center, said the drive has proven critical for many patients.

“[One patient] does not have a vehicle,” said Switzer. “They are pretty dependent on the food boxes.”

The Lincoln County food drive program is part of a national distribution network that the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiated in May in response to the pandemic and the subsequent economic disruption. To support farmers and reduce food insecurity, federal officials earmarked up to $4 billion to purchase fresh produce, dairy and meat products from American producers. The program, dubbed Farmers to Families, has since delivered over 110 million boxes of food.

Throughout the pandemic, dollars for the USDA program have come in waves. On Oct. 23, local volunteers were buoyed when U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the fourth and latest round of funding.

As part of the deal, however, USDA officials switched the distribution contract from Sysco to Aggrigator Inc. While Sysco’s trucking fleet was able to transport meals across the state each week, Aggrigator Inc. only has the resources to deliver one truckload of food per week.

According to Stephanie Staley, chief programs officer for Montana Food Bank Network, Aggrigator will only make one stop a week at a facility with a loading dock.

“These requirements from the distributor eliminate almost all locations from previous rounds and one truckload of product wouldn’t be enough to go around anyway,” Staley wrote in an email to the organizers of the Lincoln County program.

Presented with these limited options, the statewide food bank network had decided to send the truck to Flathead Food Bank.

“They are able to take and distribute a full truckload weekly, have a loading dock and are in proximity to two reservations where the need is greatest,” Staley said.

After receiving complaints about the restrictions, Staley issued a statement explaining the state food bank network had no say in picking the distributor. As part of the Farmers to Families Program, the USDA solicited bids and chose the distributors in each phase of the program. The food bank network also did not receive any grant money or other financial compensations for organizing the federal program in Montana, according to the statement.

To supplement the abrupt end of the food box drives, network organizers said they were working to source additional produce. Staley recommended that those in need of assistance visit the Libby Food Pantry.

"We are just as disappointed as our partners and the Montanans who were relying on the food, that we are not able to work with one of the previous distributors,” said Staley.

While the Lincoln County food box program may not receive deliveries during the fourth funding round for Farmers to Families, Escudero said the news did not count the program out of future cycles.

“With the elections being up in the air, there’s every chance that once we find out who’s president, Congress will get back to work and pass a stimulus package,” she said on Nov. 6.

The current round of USDA funding for the program is set to expire on Dec. 31.