Dozens of cars lined up outside the cold storage facility where volunteers passed out free emergency food boxes Friday, with the people inside enduring high winds and unexpected dust clouds – all while dressed in their Halloween costumes.
They weren’t in cheap cars, either – there was a Ford F-150 pickup, no more than five years old, followed by a 2010s Lexus.
“For so many families, this is the first time they’ve seen themselves in this situation,” said Lisette Alent, executive director of the Inland Northwest Farmers Market Association, the nonprofit distributing the boxes.
Some idled for 30 minutes in line.
“People have been telling us, ‘I don’t qualify for food stamps, I make just enough to not qualify, but I need this,’ ” Alent said. “Preserving dignity is a big priority.”
The association encouraged families to dress up for Halloween and held a concurrent costume contest.
The Friday distribution of boxes at Empire Cold Storage in Spokane Valley is the association’s last in its third phase of handing out about 1,800 boxes of food every week, funded by a United States Department of Agriculture program.
With each box filled with 30 to 40 pounds of locally sourced food comes a letter with the printed signature of President Donald Trump.
Phase 4 will be different. It was funded with Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act dollars granted to the nonprofit through the Spokane County Board of Commissioners, Alent said, rather than through the USDA’s Farmers to Families food box program.
Halfway through the first-come, first-served event, they were down to about 200 boxes. They started with about 1,800, said Rachel Gewock, the food box program coordinator for the association.
The boxes contained five pounds of chicken, including precooked nuggets and grilled chicken breast. They also came with produce like bags of apples and potatoes – and Trump’s letter.
Over the last four weeks, 50 million Farmers to Families food boxes have been distributed in the United States, according to the letter.
“I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America,” the letter reads. “We will support America’s recovery every step of the way.”
The letter also includes guidance to practice good hygiene, maintain social distance and “consider” wearing a face mask.
The letter started popping up in some boxes before September, but in the last week of that month the USDA mandated that all boxes include the letter claiming credit for the program, Politico reported.
Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue saying Trump’s letter could violate the Hatch Act by allowing the president to campaign through a federal program to feed needy families. The USDA responded in disagreement and moved ahead with the letters.
Partly in response to the letters, Oregon Food Bank decided to stop participating in the program.
Susannah Morgan, CEO of the organization, said in a statement, “there are real questions as to whether food assistance organizations can ethically distribute such a message with an election looming in mere weeks.”
For the association, Phase 4 boxes will offer more flexibility around what they can include. Funding from the USDA came with stricter regulation, Alent said.
For instance, in the Farmers to Families Food Box program, all meats had to be preprepared and not all ranchers had the facilities to precook their proteins, she said. The new boxes will feature different proteins, including locally sourced salmon and lamb.
“The USDA gave us a great opportunity,” said Lindsey Klemmer, operations manager for the distribution. “But now it’s for the community, by the community.”
The box distributions will start Monday at the Hillyard Farmer’s Market at 3 p.m. and run through December 31, with weekly pickup locations.
The funding directed by commissioners was close to $600,000, Gewock said. The Washington Department of Agriculture gave about $90,000 so the association could provide Lincoln and Stevens counties with a few hundred boxes each week, she said.
Though Spokane farmer’s markets closed in October, they’ve allowed the association to continue passing out boxes at drive-thru events at farmer’s market locations.
“We’re going to brave the cold,” Gewock said with a laugh.
Though Phase 4 of food box distribution won’t bring as many boxes per week, about 1,000 instead of 1,800, it’ll support “very local” farmers, Gewock said.
That’s good for farmers who have struggled to sell as much during the pandemic, Alent said.
“Your farmers market community,” Alent said, “it has your back.”.
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