Federal funding that put money in the pockets of local farmers and organic produce in the mouths of food-insecure families has come to an end.
The United States Department of Agriculture launched the Farmers to Families Program during the pandemic to get free food to low-income families while supporting small farms scrambling for more business. But USDA recently stopped issuing funds to local community organizations in favor of multinational food distributors like Sysco. The change will impact Bay Area farmers, particularly farmers of color, and organizers say will also result in tens of thousands of families getting lower-quality produce, and less of it.
The largest Bay Area effort was led by the Concord nonprofit Fresh Approach, which coordinated eight different organizations — such as nonprofit Pescadero farm Pie Ranch and farmers’ market operator Agricultural Institute of Marin — to deliver 3,500 boxes of produce weekly to 14,000 people in seven Bay Area counties. From May through August, Fresh Approach delivered 50,000 boxes total and paid $1.5 million to local farmers, prioritizing farmers of color and organic farmers.
In September, USDA issued Fresh Approach a basic ordering agreement to expand its reach to 70,000 people in 10 counties, but the funding never came. Instead, USDA’s latest round of funding for the program — $1 billion to last through Oct. 31 — ended up going to large companies.
A spokeswoman for USDA said the department sought out companies that could distribute produce as well as dairy and meat, and one the main factors for successful funding was box pricing. Fresh Approach priced its produce boxes at $37 each while Sysco, for example, could assemble boxes with produce — none of it required to be locally grown — plus a gallon of milk, cheese and 5 pounds of precooked meat for $49.
To Fresh Approach’s Andy Ollove, it looked like the priority went to “the most calories for the least amount of money,” as opposed to nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables.
“At the beginning of the program, they touted it as supporting farmers’ market farmers, but at this point there are no farmers of that nature in this project,” he said. “If their mission is to just feed families, they already have a system to do that in SNAP,” referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
The Trump administration has been heavily touting the program, even requiring new boxes to include a letter from Donald Trump claiming credit. Some politicians view the letters as a form of self-promotion for the president so close to an election, according to Politico. Ollove also believes there may be some political motives attached to the boxes, as Trump has repeatedly tried to cut funding for food stamps.
It’s possible the program will continue to serve the same food insecure families in the Bay Area, but no one knows for sure at this point. It’s entirely up to the food companies like Sysco to decide where the boxes go. Either way, community organizers said the new food boxes would be disappointing compared to what they’d gotten used to from local farms. The Fresh Approach boxes featured some of the Bay Area’s highest-quality produce, like legendary peaches from Frog Hollow Farm.
Andrew Park’s nonprofit Oakland Trybe was distributing 50 boxes weekly to families in East Oakland who don’t live near a grocery store. Park said the boxes were always the best product the nonprofit would receive in any given month.
“The feedback we’ve gotten is it’s like opening a gift at Christmas,” Park said, noting recipients were accustomed to getting dried and canned staples from the food bank.
Those mostly organic produce boxes came from Agricultural Institute of Marin, which hopes to continue the program even though the USDA funding appears to be over. Marin Community Foundation is funding boxes for home-bound seniors in Corte Madera and low-income Latino families in San Rafael, but CEO Andy Naja-Riese said he’s still searching for funding to continue in Oakland and San Francisco.
If he can’t find funding, that would mean no more reliable food for 50 East Bay families who depend on help from the Bay Area COVID-19 Eritrean Task Force, a volunteer group that’s been delivering food to Eritrean immigrants. These individuals have already refused food from the food bank because it’s not culturally appropriate.
“Those dried foods don’t work well for the community because a lot of them have diabetes and high blood pressure,” said volunteer Lea Berhane. “They’re new to the country. They don’t know how to read labels.”
Most of them also eat vegan for most of the year for religious reasons, so USDA’s new meaty boxes wouldn’t be a good fit, either. Berhane said they might have to stop food deliveries altogether.
The loss of funding is also a blow for small farmers who were selling produce through the program. Amber Balakian said business at her family’s Balakian Farms in the Central Valley slowed significantly during the pandemic because so many restaurants closed and fewer shoppers have been coming to the farmers’ markets. She estimates the boxes have made up 10% to 15% of her farm’s business.
“There aren’t a lot of options for smaller, not corporate farms like us,” she said. “If there aren’t alternative methods to sell like the boxes, we’d have to dump our produce or not pick it.”
Ollove is disappointed to see the program end, but he plans to draft a report showing the economic impact of Fresh Approach’s work during the pandemic.
“This model did work with a really mission-forward vision and it’s ripe for investment in the future,” he said. “But there’s no philanthropic funder that could fund it to the scale we were doing.”
Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @janellebitker