It never entered Laurel farmer Ray Vincent's mind that someday he would be packing and shipping produce in the United States Department of Agriculture Farmers to Families Food Box program to stock food banks and pantries.
But he also never imagined the COVID-19 pandemic. The health crisis and its impact on the nation's food chain have forced the fifth-generation farm family to think outside the box, and literally start using boxes.
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., met July 8 with Vincent and other members of his family who help operate the farm to learn firsthand how the program works.
“The challenge during this pandemic is to make sure people don't starve and farmers stay in business. I've learned today that this works for both,” Carper said.
Since the second week of July, Vincent Farms has been in high gear packing boxes of fresh produce destined for New York City, Boston, upstate New York and Connecticut. The 20-pound boxes contain watermelons, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and squash. Although Vincent grows many of those crops on his 3,000-acre farm, he has been trucking fruits and vegetables from southern growers until his produce can be harvested.
Vincent said they plan to pack as many as 36,000 boxes per week and ship out at least five tractor-trailer loads each day. A crew of mostly H-2A temporary foreign workers arrives at the large packing house around 5 a.m. daily.
Vincent said the health-crisis impact on their farming operation has showed how inflexible farmers are. Nearly 40 percent of all produce ends up at restaurants, and under the state of emergency many restaurants are either closed or operating at reduced capacity. “It's exposed a lot of weaknesses. We have no redundancy built in, but we can learn a lot from this and be much more flexible.”
The USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program partners with local farms to supply fresh produce, dairy and meat to those in need. The program began in May to meet the country’s need for fresh food for organizations like Meals on Wheels and the Food Bank of Delaware, which are able to deliver it to families in need.
As of the end of June, the Food Bank of Delaware has distributed over 22,000 food boxes with fresh produce, protein and dairy products throughout its network.
“In this time of crisis, the federal government and our local organizations working together with local farms to get healthy, fresh produce to Delawareans is critical,” Carper said. “I’m so proud of this program and the fifth-generation family farm for its work to keep fresh, healthy food on our tables.”