Local food pantries might get some reprieve from a tough year of increased need after a recent announcement from Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. In addition to its assistance to keeping the shelves full for people in the community, the hope is that it will also help local farmers.
On Dec. 23, Parisi announced a $5 million agreement between the county and Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin.
Parisi had previously signed a similar agreement with the food bank for $8 million, but it had been set to expire at the end of 2020. This new extension of funds will run through July 31 of this year.
A press release from the county stated that the seven-month extension was made primarily to ensure that local families in need will have sufficient access to food over the winter months by connecting area food pantries with local farmers.
“This partnership not only keeps locally raised produce, meats, cheese, and milk on the shelves of our food pantries, it helps our local growers who, like others, are struggling economically due to COVID-19,” Parisi said.
Local farmers, county officials say, are struggling alongside every other local business that has suffered from the domino effect of the pandemic.
Randal Kohn, owner of West Star Organics farm located between McFarland and Cottage Grove, said the farm had to completely restructure its sales model as a COVID-19 precaution.
“One of the biggest changes we had to make was adding an online store, whereas most of our business would usually come from people physically coming out to our garden,” Kohn said.
Going exclusively online for sales added a plethora of new costs for the farm, Kohn explained, since those working at the farm not only have to monitor streams of online orders, but also go out and collect the plants themselves for each individual order.
He also said a large portion of the farm’s revenue that would normally come from selling their products at farmer’s markets was lost, as many markets were shut down for months due to COVID-19.
Yet, West Star Organics isn’t alone.
Shawn Kuhn with Vitruvian Farms in McFarland said his business model did a full 180 when the pandemic hit.
“When COVID-19 struck, we had a brief existential crisis on our hands, like many other small businesses,” Kuhn said.
Restaurants had long been one of Vitruvian’s largest consumers, so when eateries across the state closed their doors during the pandemic, the farm had to quickly re-evaluate.
Farm personnel decided to make a switch to a direct-to-consumer business model, instead of using restaurants as the middleman.
“After all, if people were eating out less, naturally they would be cooking more at home. The amount of food needed to sustain the community didn’t change, only the avenue through which they procured the food had,” Kuhn explained.
Parisi and Second Harvest are hoping to ease the burden for local farmers like Kohn and Kuhn, as well as stock shelves at local food pantries for those struggling with food insecurity.
Staff at the McFarland Community Food Pantry say this new funding will be a saving grace for their patrons in the coming months.
“Having this extension of support from the county and Second Harvest will help ensure our ability to provide meat, dairy and produce for pantry guests,” said McFarland Community Food Pantry Manager Sue Steinmetz. “It also allows the pantry to devote its resources to purchasing other food and personal items, paper products and household essentials.”
According to Steinmetz, traffic at the pantry has increased significantly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring. The pantry has seen a sharp increase in the number of senior citizens, as well as in requests for home deliveries, Steinmetz said.
While the pantry is still closed to the public as a COVID-19 precaution, Steinmetz said shoppers can fill out a grocery list and turn it in to a volunteer, who will then stock the shopper’s car with their requested items.