GREAT FALLS, Mont. - The Farmers to Families Food Box program could make a comeback, providing for Montanans once again this summer.
Last season was successful, now the USDA is considering some possible changes to the program. Cascade, Gallatin, Missoula, and Yellowstone counties were hubs for sending over 6,000 families home with boxes full of fresh food from June to early September 2020.
"Many of the communities already have food hubs but if you don't have a food hub program you should be working with your neighbors to create one so you can get food to your local community,” Walter Schweitzer, President of the Montana Farmers Union said.
Local farmers hope they will be included more this time around as the USDA is still considering options for this summer.
"Part of the program was supposed to also help the small farmers who had typically sold their food through farmer’s markets and other opportunities that were shut down because of the pandemic. So a lot of the local farm organizations here in Montana had bid to supply food for the food boxes but got overlooked and they went to the big corporate farms and so Montana farmers union worked with some of the groups and helped fund so they can put their own food into food boxes. Most of this was on the west-side of Montana and a lot of it went into the Ronan area,” Schweitzer said.
The USDA program partnered with Salvation Army locations across America to feed families in need and support the agriculture industry. Initially the project was geared toward helping smaller family farms, but Schweitzer says many were overlooked when most of the food in those Montana boxes was shipped from corporate farms over 1,000 miles away.
"Last year much of the COVID dollar seemed to go towards the big corporations, the big corporate monopolies and bypass the family farms. The food box program is a prime example. Most of the food that went into those boxes came from corporate farms 1,000 miles away from Montana and it didn't benefit the family farms of Montana. It certainly helped the last and the least who needed the food. That was great. But it could have been a reeling home run if it would have just allowed an opportunity for the small family farms that are producing food that generally get sold in the farmers markets, if they had just given them and opportunity to put this food in the box as well,” Schweitzer said.
According to Schweitzer, corporate America supplied food put into last year’s boxes, not Montana’s small farms. He hopes President Biden’s American Rescue Plan addresses the importance of food resiliency, a driving force behind the ag industry.
"I am encouraged by that conversation and I'm hopeful that they're going to be providing more funding for regional processing so that Montana can get back to producing and processing our own food for ourselves,” Schweitzer said.
Farmers Union representatives across the nation met with the USDA last week to voice concerns about the food box program and provide possible solutions.
"We suggested that they work more with the local farmers in each one of the communities and allow them to participate in supplying food for these food boxes,” Schweitzer said.
A comment period closed a few weeks ago, and now the USDA is evaluating feedback to come up with a finalized plan for this year’s food box program.