With another $1.8 billion yet to be distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary-designee Randy Romanski said he is working to get Wisconsin farmers more directly involved than they were when the program’s initial $1.2 billion in contracts were awarded in early May.

Of the initial $1.2 billion allocated through the food box program, Wisconsin farmers saw only about $9 million come their way.

“As this program moves forward, Wisconsin should be considered a heavy participant,” Romanski said. “We expected the inclusion of Wisconsin farmers and companies to be a little higher.

“There’s a lot of food insecurity here, in a state that produces a lot of food.”

The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program was created in order to purchase and distribute agricultural products to those in need. Through the program, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service partnered with national, regional and local suppliers whose workforce was impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels and other food service businesses, to purchase up to $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat products.

The program’s initial $1.2 billion in purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat products were to be packaged into family-sized boxes and transported to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need through June 30.

Back on April 1, before the creation of the food box program, DATCP sent a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue asking the USDA to buy excess commodities and pass along details on the coronavirus assistance program that included those purchases and distribution to the food insecure.

At that time, Romanski said because of partnerships already in place between DATCP and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Pork Producers Association, Hunger Task Force, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Feeding Wisconsin, and others, he envisioned Wisconsin agriculture playing a strong role in that distribution system.

Instead, just seven Wisconsin businesses were selected to deliver boxes in three regions of the country. Gumz Muck Farms in Endeavor and Heartland Produce of Kenosha were each awarded more than $1 million to deliver fresh fruit and vegetable boxes to the Midwest Region. The Fresh Group of Milwaukee was awarded $1,328,435 to deliver fresh fruit and vegetable boxes and combination boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products, precooked meat and fluid milk to the Mountain Plains Region and and Masters Gallery Foods of Plymouth was awarded $1,753,920 to deliver dairy products boxes to multiple regions.

In the Midwest Region, Gourmet Gorilla, a school lunch provider based in Chicago, received a total of more than $27.5 million from the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

A wedding-event planning company, CRE8AD8 in San Antonio, Texas, was awarded about $39 million to deliver fresh fruit and vegetable boxes, dairy products boxes and precooked meat boxes. The San Antonio Express-News reported that by late May CRE8AD8 had delivered on fewer than 250 of the 750,000 food boxes they were contracted to deliver by June 30.

In early June, Wisconsin legislators U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and U.S. Reps. Ron Kind, Gwen Moore and Mark Pocan sent a letter to Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue pressing for answers on how contracts are awarded through USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

“The USDA has a lot of explaining to do about why inexperienced and poor performing contractors in other states have been awarded contracts while qualified partners in Wisconsin have been left behind,” Baldwin said in a news release.

“... (M)any contracts have been awarded to companies with little experience who are at risk of being unable to fulfill their obligations, with many food banks reporting far fewer food boxes than expected.”

The group is seeking greater transparency in how the contracts were awarded and to ensure the remaining $1.8 billion of the $3 billion Farmers to Families Food Box Program is distributed fairly by providing information on plans moving forward.

“Despite the number of dairy farmers in Wisconsin ready to supply hungry families, less than 1% of dairy product awards went to Wisconsin farmers,” Pocan said in the release.

Romanski talked to USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Bruce Summers about the state’s involvement in the program and was told the AMS is reviewing organizations that have received contracts and whether the organizations have fulfilled requirements of the contracts.

Romanski said he was told that the USDA intends to use the remaining $1.8 billion from the program and that the application period for that $1.8 billion will open soon.

Romanski said he used his conversation with Summers to convey that, “Wisconsin has a lot to offer the program and to the food insecure because of the diversity of products produced and processed here in hopes that as the new round of applications are considered, Wisconsin producers and processors have the opportunity to be part of the next round.”

More information on the Farmers to Families Food Box program can be found at www.ams.usda.gov/selling-food-to-usda/farmers-to-families-food-box.

Wisconsin Farm Support Program

Applications are now open for the $50 million Wisconsin Farm Support Program Gov. Tony Evers introduced in May. The funding is part of the money allocated to Wisconsin through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

The program makes one-time direct payments of between $1,000 and $3,500 available for farmers who had a gross income between $35,000 and $5 million based on 2019 tax filings. Payments will be made on a sliding scale based on gross income.

The program is being administered by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue and will rely on an online application system at www.revenue.wi.gov. Those unable to apply online can call the Department of Revenue at 608-266-2772.

The Department of Revenue has answers to frequently asked questions about the program at www.revenue.wi.gov/Pages/TaxPro/2020/FarmSupportProgram.aspx.

The application period ends June 29 at 11:59 p.m. Funds will be disbursed to all eligible applicants beginning July 15.