When schools and restaurants started closing down during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in Wisconsin and people were told to stay home for anything not deemed essential, businesses up and down the food-supply chain felt the strain of not being able to keep up with rapidly changing markets.

Immense quantities of goods were no longer needed to feed school children and restaurant-goers, leading to oversupplies at food processors and a loss of markets for farm commodities.

Valley Bakers Cooperative, a member-owned cooperative and the only bakery-related distribution cooperative in the country based in Greenville just west of Appleton, saw the bakeries that own the cooperative lose target markets including grocery stores, retail bakeries, universities and Lambeau Field.

“Some of those markets have been hit extremely hard,” said Rich Wise, CEO of Valley Bakers Cooperative. “Our sales, in the arena that we’re in, have really dipped off starting in March and April. They’ve come back a little bit, but they’re still hurting when restaurants can only be at 25% capacity. A lot of our little retail bakeries are making breads and buns for these restaurants.”

Valley Bakers Cooperative found some relief in the form of the the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program was created in mid-April in order to purchase and distribute agricultural products to those in need. Through the program, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which helps farmers sell their products, 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. In late August, the program was given another $1 billion.

Through Oct. 14, more than 105 million food boxes had been invoiced, according to the AMS.

Valley Bakers Cooperative is a member of UniPro Foodservice, a country-wide food-buying group that tipped them off to the Farmers to Families Food Box Program in April. Wise said his team took a look at the USDA website and decided to take the necessary steps to put themselves in a position to participate in the program.

“We learned of the opportunity when not only manufacturers were having a heck of a time selling their products or goods to restaurants throughout the United States and growers were having a heck of a time, they tipped us off to say, ‘If anybody is interested in packing boxes, take a look,’” Wise said. “It’s a lengthy process to get your bid authority to be able to be a part of the program, but our team decided we were going to be all in. We had many employees who said, ‘I’ll do this part, you do this part,’ and it all came together at the time for the initial phases of the bid.”

Valley Bakers Cooperative was one of seven Wisconsin businesses selected to deliver boxes in three regions of the country in the opening round of the program and the only one to continue all the way through to the third round, according to the AMS list of approved contractors.

Contractors in the first round had the option to supply boxes consisting of fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products, precooked meat or a combination of the other three options. Valley Bakers, which delivers boxes in the Midwest region that includes Wisconsin, chose the combination box.

“We felt that helping the community, you’re not going to do that with just one item in a box,” Wise said. “You have to give them a full meal in a box, and that’s why we decided to do the combination box.”

In the opening round, Valley Bakers’ boxes included potatoes, grilled chicken, carrots, milk, cheese and yogurt. They have added apples and meatballs in subsequent rounds. Boxes are sized to supply a family for a week and include five pounds chicken and yogurt, a pound of meatballs and cheese, three pounds of apples and two pounds of carrots, Wise said.

Valley Bakers has made an effort to work with mostly Wisconsin potatoes, Wisconsin cheese and dairy from Kwik Trip and Lamers Dairy in Appleton.

“It wasn’t easy to find people who had the quantities that were available at the time, so the buying group helped with that,” Wise said. “We’re a bakery distributor typically here. We went out using our buying-group power and asked for some expertise throughout the country about who to connect with for our produce items and our cheese.”

Boxes are packed every day, typically by family members of employees, and are loaded onto three trucks and sent to sites designated by the nationwide hunger-relief organization Feeding America and Valley Bakers. Trucks are unloaded by hand into cars of those who show up for that day’s event.

Wise said distribution events can draw 600 or more cars waiting when the semis arrive with food. In October alone, Wise said, Valley Bakers will distribute more than 58,000 boxes to the food insecure in northeast Wisconsin.

“There’s still a need here,” Wise said. “When those trucks go out, a full semi-tractor trailer will be out of product in two hours. It is amazing.”

USDA Under Secretary Bill Northey said he has heard similar stories from businesses across the country involved in the program.

“We hear from the businesses that had their life disrupted because restaurants closed down, schools closed down. They have all these trucks, they have cold storage, they have people, and this gives them an opportunity to put that to use in a way they feel really, really good about,” Northey said during an Oct. 8 stop at Solhawk Dairy in Chippewa Falls. “In some of those cases, they would have struggled to make it through this time. They said, financially, this is important, but they are also able to keep employees and a way to bridge back to the new normal.”

Program impact debated

But the program has not come without a fair share of controversy and shortcomings.

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program has recently gotten caught up in politics as the November presidential election approaches.

In late August, the USDA included a letter signed by President Donald Trump in millions of the boxes.

“As President, safeguarding the health and well-being of our citizens is one of my highest priorities,” Trump said in the letter. “As part of our response to the coronavirus, I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America. We are partnering with local organizations, farms, and ranches to ensure that you receive locally-sourced fresh fruits and vegetables as well as dairy and meat products.”

On Aug. 14, a group of lawmakers sent a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue claiming that the letter included in the food boxes violated the Hatch Act, writing, “Using a federal relief program to distribute a self-promoting letter from the President to American families just three months before the presidential election is inappropriate and a violation of federal law.”

Then earlier this month, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel determined that Perdue violated the Hatch Act during an Aug. 24 Farmers to Families Food Box Program event in North Carolina, where it was found he engaged in political activity by pushing for Trump’s re-election while on tax-payer funded travel. “As Secretary of Agriculture,” the finding said, “Secretary Perdue is covered by the Hatch Act and Prohibited from, among other things, using his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”

Since well before that, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary-designee Randy Romanski has expressed disappointment with Wisconsin farmers’ and processors’ limited participation in the program.

Back on April 1, before the creation of the federal food box program, DATCP sent a letter to 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 several agriculture and food-security organizations across the state, he envisioned Wisconsin agriculture playing a strong role in that distribution system. DATCP had even submitted a list of dozens of producers and processors from the state that were interested in being involved in the program, Romanski said.

But when the first round on contractors was announced in early May, just seven Wisconsin businesses were selected to deliver boxes in three regions of the country.

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

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 Perdue pressing for answers on how contracts are awarded through USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program. The group was seeking greater transparency in how the contracts were awarded and to ensure what was then the remaining $1.8 billion of the then-$3 billion Farmers to Families Food Box Program was 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 a news release at the time.

USDA officials told the U.S. Government Accountability Office they consider the program a success, “having implemented an innovative, multi-billion-dollar system for purchases and redistribution in weeks.

“According to officials, the need to move quickly the program, lack of suppliers and recipient agencies, limited staff, and use of a new contracting approach by the Agricultural Marketing Service,” the GAO report on program spending said.

The report recommended Perdue direct the Agricultural Marketing Service to conduct a more thorough evaluation of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program after the third round of the program.

Before the second round of the program, Romanski said he talked to USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Bruce Summers in an effort to get Wisconsin farmers involved in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

Instead, AMS extended about $1.1 billion of the first-round contracts in the second round of funding. About a dozen new vendors were selected to distribute boxes in the Southeast, Northeast and Northern Plains regions, Romanski said. The second round of contracts totaled about $200 million to new contractors and did not include any new vendors in Wisconsin, he said.

“There is a lot of need out there because of COVID-19. There are a lot of people who are food insecure,” he said. “Wisconsin producers and processors grow and make and distribute a wide variety of products that can and should be used in a food-security program. Our goal from the start at DATCP has been to connect the dots between Wisconsin producers and these contractors and vendors USDA selected so food can get to people who need it, whether they’re here in Wisconsin or somewhere else.

“The program at the federal level is well-intentioned. But based on even the conversations we’ve had with USDA, there’s an understanding that Wisconsin’s allocation was a little light.”

The state created a program similar to the federal Farmers to Families Food Box Program, the Food Security Initiative, in its own effort to aid Wisconsin farmers during the pandemic.

The Food Security Initiative was announced in May. The program was funded with $15 million provided by Gov. Tony Evers from Wisconsin’s federal CARES Act funding to go along with the Wisconsin Farm Support Program, which offered $50 million in direct payments to farmers.

That money went to a combination of 17 food banks to make infrastructure improvements and two of Wisconsin’s largest hunger relief organizations to help those in need of food and give an additional farmers and food processors in the state.

“The Food Security Initiative is something the governor came up with to directly effect Wisconsin’s food insecure and taking that extra step to connect the dots between the food insecure and growers and processors here in Wisconsin, which serves the purpose of boost the supply chain,” Romanski said. “That’s the approach that’s been attempted at the federal level too with the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. The great thing about the way Wisconsin approached this is the direct connection between Wisconsin products and Wisconsin citizens who are food insecure.”

Throughout all three rounds of the Farmers to Families Food Box program, about $20 million has been awarded in contracts to Wisconsin businesses, though exact numbers for the program have been difficult to pin down and the USDA AMS hadn’t responded to an email inquiry as of press time.

In the first round of the 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. Their contract wasn’t extended into the second round.

Still, farmers have said the program has benefited Wisconsin agriculture, helping to improve what could otherwise be more low commodity prices.

“Prices for potatoes have been good,” Andy Diercks, a potato and vegetable grower from Coloma and DATCP Board member, said during the September DATCP Board meeting. “That’s good, I think. But it seems like a lot to pay for potatoes to put in a box.”

“If you consider what happened to dairy prices recently, that food box program has had a tremendous impact,” said Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Bragger, a dairy farmer in Buffalo County. “Going forward, we have to make sure we’re working for good policy to prevent these supply-chain disruptions.”

And for their part, Wise said Valley Bakers Cooperative has received a big boost during uncertain times from their participation in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

“We saw a great time to pivot and do a little extra something for our community, which is part of our mission statement,” Wise said. “We were able to help families get food into their bellies and help a lot of suppliers that had extra products that they couldn’t bring to market.

“When you bring all that together, it’s a pretty special formula.”