More Than Cans of Corn and Green Beans Tariff Assistance Yields Extra Donations to Area Food Pantries 11/26/18 11/26/18 10:38:02 AM
Brian Barks, president and CEO of Food Bank for the Heartland, stands by food ready to be loaded onto a truck in the loading dock of the Food Bank’s Omaha warehouse on Nov. 6, 2018. (Photos by Scott Stewart)
More Than Cans of Corn and Green Beans
Tariff Assistance Yields Extra Donations to Area Food Pantries
By Scott Stewart
The Daily Record
Political setbacks can translate into lost income – and even existential threats – for Nebraska and Iowa farmers. Strangely, though, it also means more food on the table for some local families who aren’t sure where they’ll come up with their next meal.
While the U.S.-China trade war continues to wage, it provides uncertainty for agriculture producers in the Midwest. In addition, an overhaul of NAFTA could face a political hurdle in a divided Congress and agricultural policies remain in limbo as lawmakers seek consensus on the farm bill during the lame duck session.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a package of relief programs for producers in August that were intended to soften the blow from steel and aluminum tariffs, which prompted retaliatory tariffs from Mexico and China. One of those programs authorized the purchase of up to $1.2 billion in commodities distributed to food banks and child nutrition programs across the country.
For Omaha-area residents, this means more milk and pork products are available to help feed hungry families throughout the winter months.
Brian Barks, president and CEO of Food Bank for the Heartland, said milk was the first donation from the program to reach their warehouse, located near 108th and L Streets in Omaha. Hiland Dairy is providing 4,000 half-gallons of milk every month from Nebraska dairy farmers.
“The challenge was being able to distribute that product within 10 days from the time that it hit our dock,” Barks said. “That’s something that we’re going to get each month until March.”
Not all organizations accept USDA donations, which carry extra reporting requirements, or have the capacity to store and distribute dairy products. But milk is a priority for Food Bank for the Heartland, along with lean proteins and fresh produce, because those food products – generally found along the exterior of a grocery store – are healthy but harder for many families to obtain.
“Those are difficult items for those individuals to buy, so that’s why we focus a lot on distributing that product,” Barks said. “Being able to get it through this program is fantastic.”
Starting next month, the food bank expects to receive frozen pork loins from Iowa producers, Barks said. Other donations through the USDA program are also possible, but it’s not set in stone.
Doug Nuttelman, a Stromsburg dairy farmer, said he’s glad to hear that milk is making its way to food banks through the USDA program.
“I think this is one of the first times we’ve gotten to use milk,” Nuttelman said. “There isn’t a dairy farmer that would want to see some family not get the proper amount of nutrition, so using that money to feed people is a great idea.”
However, Nuttelman said the dairy industry has been in a two-year slump, and the tariffs are driving up inventory of cheese, butter and other products, driving down prices and further squeezing producers.
“The tariffs have created a price decline in the dairy industry,” Nuttelman said. “Anymore, the dairy industry is a global market. It is not just domestic. Farmers produce milk seven days a week, and we almost have to export one day’s production every week.”
The National Milk Producers Federation said in August that it expects the USDA tariff mitigation plan will cover less than a dime of every dollar lost by farmers.
Having Congress pass the United States – Mexico – Canada Agreement, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), would make the most immediate difference, because Mexico is the biggest export market, Nuttelman said. Lifting the tariffs from Mexico and China would help, as well as passing the farm bill – which he said isn’t likely to affect the dairy industry as much.
“We need to get the tariff stuff, the trade agreements, all approved, so we can get back to normalcy,” Nuttelman said. “We’d rather get our money out of the marketplace than any farm program.”
Loren Rohl, general manager for Hiland Dairy in Omaha, said in a statement that the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program will make a difference in local communities.
“In addition to helping America’s dairy farmers with their excess milk supply, we will be helping people have access to this nutrient-rich beverage,” Rohl said.
Nationally, the influx of commodities to the food bank industry has been praised, but challenges have also been noted – both in storing and transporting products, and in finding ways to replace it when it is no longer available through additional funding connected to the trade war.
Barks said the Food Bank for the Heartland also faces transportation challenges, and he expects that will only worsen as a national shortage of freight drivers continues to drive up costs. Those issues are more persistent than those connected to the increase of government donations.
“The food banking industry as a whole, along with multiple other industries, are being very challenged
by transportation issues,” Barks said.
Barks said competing with for-profit companies that can offer signing bonuses make getting applicants
with commercial driver’s licenses in the door nearly impossible.
“We’ve had a Class A CDL driver opening for at least a year and just cannot get it filled,” Barks said. “It’s an issue that we know is not going to get any better.”
Only a sliver of the Food Bank for the Heartland’s inventory comes from food drive donations. While those donations are greatly appreciated, Barks said the bulk of the food bank’s inventory is purchased,
often at a steep discount, or is donated from whole-sellers, retailers and manufacturers.
In a typical year, the USDA provides about 20 percent of the organization’s overall inventory.
“It’s a common perception that the food bank is not much more than a bunch of cans of corn and green beans that were collected during a food drive,” Barks said. “We are much, much more than that.”
Going forward, the Food Bank for the Heartland is on track to double how many meals it provides to meet the needs in the community. Replacing the food from the tariff assistance program is already part of the food bank plans, as it hopes to increase its fundraising efforts as well over the coming years.
The Food Bank for the Heartland purchases bulk produce that volunteers repackage for distribution to food pantries across Nebraska and Western Iowa. (Photo by Scott Stewart)