farm covid

Breaking New Ground: Farmers are Crucial Hunger Fighters in the COVID-19 Era

On a hot, dusty day last August I left our metro headquarters behind and headed to Farmfest in Redwood County, Minn. The all-things-agriculture gathering offered a chance to thank farmers for their partnership and to spotlight the too-often-invisible role they play in the fight against hunger. I caught up with old friends and built new ties over corn dogs and pork sandwiches, eaten while leaning against huge, new-model tractors on display. We discussed hunger in Greater Minnesota and metro communities and ways that excess crops could be leveraged to fill more tables. One thing we did not discuss was the coronavirus. We hadn’t even heard of it yet.

Allison O'Toole Farmfest

In the months since, the coronavirus has complicated hunger and farming in dizzying ways, making supply chains and markets wildly unpredictable and creating a flood of need. The role farmers play in food banking has become more crucial than ever.

The Farm to Food Shelf program demonstrates what can happen when the various players in the feeding-the-world business join forces. Now in its sixth year, Farm to Food Shelf is a state-funded program that offers local farmers the opportunity to donate excess produce to area food shelves. By offsetting a portion of harvesting, packaging and transportation costs, the program makes it easy for Minnesota growers to donate surplus crops that would otherwise go unharvested or be discarded.

In the last five years, generous farmers have donated 30 million pounds of produce to Second Harvest Heartland to distribute to food shelves and meal programs in all 87 Minnesota counties. Farm to Food Shelf funding also covers Minnesota’s milk grant, which provides over half a million dollars each year to purchase milk for distribution to Minnesota’s food shelves and other charitable organizations.

In response to COVID-19, Minnesota’s six Feeding America food banks received an additional $1.25 million in Farm to Food Shelf funding to spend on purchasing milk and protein. Protein and dairy items are some of the most in-demand products at food shelves. As thousands more Minnesotans seek out food assistance, many for the first time, they are relieved to find the comfort of these familiar staples.

I was honored to discuss hunger and agriculture with two leaders and friends this week. Gary Wertish, President of the Minnesota Farmers Union, and Thom Peterson, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), joined me via Zoom for our weekly update to the community on hunger and the coronavirus.

There’s a lot of uncertainty for those working in the agricultural industry right now. Gary emphasized that “we don’t know the full extent of the damage that’s going to be done to everybody.” Many farmers are doing what they can to survive, but the constant stress about the long-term impacts of this crisis on their livelihood is difficult to bear. Despite these concerns, Gary was confident that Minnesotans will come together to support local producers: “We all have to work together to try and get through this.”

As MDA Commissioner, Thom has seen countless examples of how “COVID-19 has tipped our food system upside down.” While the ag community has adapted to this new reality nearly overnight, there are also many programs operated by MDA that work to provide relief to farmers who were already facing tough market conditions. He noted that hunger is also present in greater Minnesota; retired farmers who once helped feed the world now rely on food shelves to make ends meet.

Both Thom and Gary ended our time together talking about the many ways Minnesotans can work to support local farmers, from purchasing Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes to grocery shopping at farmers markets. Despite the difficult stories we’re hearing about our ag community, Thom noted that “there’s a lot of good in the world as we think about how to help each other.”

Farmfest will look quite different this year, and maybe even next. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the challenge, our community’s farmers are with us in the hunger fight and we’re stronger for it.

– Allison O'Toole, CEO
Second Harvest Heartland