David Lapp has seen the population in need of food nearly triple since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in central Pennsylvania.
The CEO of Blessings of Hope food bank guesses it could double again by midsummer. He said it’s an eventuality brought on by the “extreme demands of COVID-19,” which has led to shutdowns, keeping adults away from work wages and children from school lunches.
Specifically, Lapp said his organization has been able to take advantage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Family Food Box Program. The program provides $1.2 billion for the purchase of surplus produce, meats and dairy products.
Those products are then sent to USDA-approved distributors, who pack them into family-sized boxes before sending them to charitable organizations, where they eventually are given to families in need.
On Tuesday, state Gov. Tom Wolf announced that East Hempfield Township-based Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative had been awarded $1,365,000 to participate in the program. A cooperative executive said he didn’t want to discuss that role.
The food banks do not receive funding through the program, they only get the surplus farm goods for distribution.
The surplus goods will make a difference, especially as pandemic-related grocery buying habits continue to put a strain on the availability of canned, boxed and bottled goods, said Joe Arthur, executive director at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which serves 27 counties, including Lancaster.
Arthur estimated that the amount of food flowing through his organization is up 45% while the number of in-need patrons has increased by about 30%. Before the pandemic, the bank served about 135,000 people a month.
“There is a huge need,” Arthur said, excited that he would soon be able to lean on the food box program.
Federal funding already has given Blessings of Hope food bank access to tens of thousands of gallons of surplus milk, Lapp said.
That’s in addition to 20,253 gallons of whole milk donated by members of Lancaster-based dairy advocacy group, 97 Milk, who raised $52,300 to process surplus milk from regional farmers.
That’s according to 97 Milk board member Jackie Behr, who said the surplus milk might have been wasted, dumped down a drain because it’s no longer being purchased for use by traditional customers like now-closed restaurants.
Vegetable and meat farmers likewise have had to waste products, and even euthanize animals, due to those supply chain breakdowns, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman Liam Migdail said.
But Arthur anticipates there will be a need for surplus goods at food banks into next year due to the economic fallout of the pandemic.
“In our world, we believe this is going to be a long response and recovery,” he said.