Number of Wisconsin Households Barely Getting by Swells to Nearly 550,000
Food banks like Eau Claire's Feed My People Food Bank bridge the gap when families are not earning enough to make ends meet. (Photo Provided)

Food banks and farmers still not receiving the federal aid the state had anticipated, says state official. 

Wisconsin continues to receive relatively little funding that would help farmers struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic and people in need of food, state officials and food bank operators said. 

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program, overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recently announced $200 million in contracts to new providers. However none of that money went to Wisconsin contractors, state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Randy Romanski told UpNorthNews Thursday.

That action follows revelations last month that Wisconsin had received less than 1 percent, or $9 million, of program disbursements as of early June despite being known as “American’s Dairyland.”

Some existing contracts with Wisconsin distributors apparently were among those extended with 178 program providers. 

“We have seen very few Wisconsin organizations actually be connected with that program,” Romanski said, noting that while some state contractors have been linked to the Food Box initiative, “it is not as many as you would think.”

Projections had called for Wisconsin to receive $44 million of initial funding, far above the $9 million received as of early June. Current program dollars for Wisconsin were not available from USDA on Thursday. A total of $3 billion was allocated for the program nationally.

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program provides money to food banks and other contractors, who use it to purchase food from farmers and to support companies that process that food. 

In May, the USDA announced the agency had awarded $1.2 billion for Food Box efforts. More money has been allocated since, but much remains unspent. The agency said it plans to grant $800 million in upcoming contracts. 

Romanski said he is hopeful Wisconsin will be awarded some of that money, given the state’s ample food products, existing farm sector, and connections to get food to people who need it.  

“In April (when the program was announced) we thought Wisconsin would be well-positioned to provide food to people in need. We believe we are still well-positioned to do that,” Romanski said. 

On June 23 U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the Food Box program had distributed more than 20 million food boxes to support farmers and get food to people in need. The program “has continued to pick up steam,” he said in a news release.

However, Romanski and others said not enough farmers or state residents struggling financially are receiving assistance through the program. Wisconsin farmers continue to struggle, with many saying they may not be able to remain in business if the economic downturn related to the pandemic continues.    

Four Wisconsin Congressional Democrats have questioned the oversight of the Food Box program. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and U.S. Reps. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, and Mark Pocan, D-Madison, last month sent a joint letter to Perdue seeking answers about how contracts have been awarded through the Food Box program. 

Many of the contracts have been awarded to companies with little experience, the lawmakers said, meaning many food banks are reporting having received far fewer food boxes than anticipated.

Earlier this week, USDA officials announced they are extending the Food Box program through August to reach more people in need of food. That need has grown substantially during the coronavirus pandemic as many lost jobs at least temporarily. 

Feed My People Food Bank in Eau Claire is among the food providers in Wisconsin that have been able to access the Food Box program.

For the past month food bank workers have packaged food boxes and distributed them throughout the 14-county area the agency serves, said Susie Haugley, the food bank’s communications specialist. 

Feed My People has noticed a growing need for food during the coronavirus pandemic, Haugley said, and the food boxes are helping fill the rising demand. In response, the food bank is expanding existing programs and developing new ones, some of which are intended to get food to people in rural areas, she said. 

“The food we are receiving through this program is much-appreciated,” Haugley said. “Our partner pantries have been eager to receive this food as well. We have seen an increase in the need for it, and we don’t see that changing anytime soon.”