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COVID hits food chain from farm to family

The coronavirus pandemic significantly impacted Washington’s food chain from farm to table. From restaurant closures to increased demand from consumers at the supermarket, demand shifted in ways that left most farmers reeling.

Derek Sandison, director of Washington State Department of Agriculture, and Tom Davis, director of government relations for the Washington State Farm Bureau testified before the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee this week on the struggles of both food producers and consumers.

Food banks saw a dramatic decrease in food donations, while experiencing a tremendous growth in demand, Sandison said. Pre-COVID, grocery store donations made up 85% of food banks’ donations. That percent dropped to about 25% because consumers were buying more products at the store and eating out less.

Food banks also had to shift their distribution model from a pantry-style store to a labor-intensive food box, which requires an assembly line process. 

Philanthropy Northwest has raised $12.8 million, through its WA Food Fund program, for food assistance in Washington since April 2020. 

At the same time, the demand for agricultural products from the restaurant sector plummeted, forcing farmers to dump milk and cull herds. As a result, the department opened a pipeline to get that surplus food from the farms to the food banks.

It was a win-win,” he said. “We were able to provide fresh, wholesome food for food banks, but also help our own farmers survive this as well. Many of them have had their normal supply of options curtailed if they were selling to a restaurant or small store. Reconnecting our small-scale farmers with consumers was very important.”

Though the programs that support farmers are stable through the end of the year, the financial stability is uncertain after that. The department submitted a supplemental budget request to the Office of Financial Management that would last from January until June 2021. Sandison said they are also working with the congressional delegation to identify types of federal aid that could be helpful if it were to be incorporated into a “corona 4” legislation at the federal level.

“We want to develop a more resilient food system moving forward,” he said.

Davis shared with the committee that many farmers expect the COVID-19 financial impacts to linger for a year or more. He touted the CARES Act, saying the aid provided money when farmers needed it most. He also said the Farmers to Families Food Box program was successful and created new, collaborative relationships between food banks, distributors and farm families. 

Yet farmers are still suffering.

The actual farm economy remains depressed nationally and without ongoing support from Congress our farmers are facing difficult times,” he said.

The USDA’s farm income forecast projects a 3% year-over-year reduction in sales of crops and livestock, he said. It’s the lowest level of farm receipts in more than a decade and $18 million below the 10-year average.

“Farmers are in a tight spot right now and the pandemic isn’t making it any easier,” he said.


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