VAC hands out more than 9 tons of free food

Wednesday, November 4, 2020
Volunteers loaded about 475 boxes of food into vehicles and delivered nearly 100 boxes to isolated individuals in local care facilities and similar situations. (Photo by Seth Boyes)

Hundreds of vehicles were lined up at the Dickinson County Fairgrounds Saturday afternoon to pick up boxes of free food from the United States Department of Agriculture. A group of more than 24 local volunteers gave away an estimated 560 boxes of fruit, vegetables, dairy and cooked meat and as many gallons of milk about 80 pounds of chocolate were also given away in the spirit of Halloween.

Hundreds of vehicles were lined up at the Dickinson County Fairgrounds ahead of the 1 p.m. food distribution. The local delivery was part of Farmers to Families, a USDA program aimed at supporting producers during low market demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Food Bank of Iowa said it hit record distribution this month, after previously breaking records in April and June. (Photo by Seth Boyes)

Saturday's distribution was part of the third round of the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program, which buys produce, meat and dairy from producers while demand is low due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The boxes are then distributed at the local level to those in need. Angela Kofoot, executive director of the Voluntary Action Center, helped coordinate the local distribution. The program's fourth round began Nov. 1, according to the USDA's website.

Kofoot said she was able to get Dickinson County into the Farmers to Families program late last spring, and the county was added to the list of delivery locations in July volunteers received more than 1,300 pounds of pulled pork at that time, which was then distributed to the public from Lakeside Laboratories. Kofoot later contacted a distributor in Detroit who happened to have produce from the program's third round available, but it would have to be shipped as a full semi load. Each load carries about 1,200 boxes of food each weighing about 35 pounds and 1,200 gallons of milk. Kofoot arranged for a shipment to be split between the Dickinson County location and Grand Avenue Community Outreach in Spencer. She said nearly 100 of the boxes were delivered to isolated individuals, such as those in local care facilities. That left about 475 boxes for pick up at the fairgrounds, by her estimation. Members of the local Hunger Coalition were also brought in for the effort in early October.

"We actually said yes to the distributor before we were even sure what location we could use, but the team was excited to do this again on a bigger scale," Kofoot said.

Volunteers were able to use a skid loader supplied by the Dickinson County Fairgrounds to place the pallets of food on the ground outside the Dickinson County Expo Building. Vehicles pulled along either side of the pallets as volunteers loaded the boxes, milk and some chocolate in recognition of Halloween. (Photo by Seth Boyes)

Sue Boettcher with the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Office, said she coordinated with the Dickinson County Fair Board to use the fairgrounds as a distribution site the board also offered the use of the fair's skid loader. The city of Spirit Lake provided traffic cones for the effort, and Dave Kuker Trucking supplied a pallet jack to move the loads of food inside the semi trailer. A number of 4-H participants as well as Boy Scout Troop 168 helped volunteers unload and distribute the boxes of food and jugs of milk. Boettcher said a number of additional people arrived unexpectedly, simply wanting to help in any way they could. She said organizers were pleasantly surprised, and there were many more volunteers in the end than the group had counted on that day.

"This whole project just goes to show what a team of dedicated people can accomplish in a relatively short period of time," Kofoot said.

Volunteers started loading vehicles at about 1 p.m. Saturday, and by about 1:30 p.m. the waiting cars and trucks snaked through the parking lot, out the west entrance of the fairgrounds and down 15th Street before taking a turn south down a large portion of Peoria Avenue. Volunteers were able to load as many as six vehicles at a time three on either side of the readied pallets. Tempers flared at one point, as some drivers expressed frustration with the order in which the drivers were being waved through the lot. Volunteers ran out of milk shortly after 2 p.m. that day, and the last of the food boxes was given away shortly after that. Organizers made sure enough boxes had been set aside to cover the remaining delivery commitments, but a number of drivers were sent home empty-handed from the fairgrounds.

The Food Bank of Iowa said Friday it had distributed more food in the month of October than ever before in the organization's 40-year history. It cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a major factor behind this year's increases, and the food bank said it has broken distribution records in not only October but also earlier in April and June.

"With our study of previous recessions, we know food insecurity from this recession will not peak for several years and is unlikely to recede to pre-recession levels before 2027," Michelle Book, president and CEO of Food Bank of Iowa, said. "We have a long road ahead."

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