Friday, October 9, 2020

Food security during COVID-19, WSDA rises to the challenge

Chris McGann

Amy Dietrich of Frog Hollow Farm, Jeff Mathias of Blue
 Mountain Action Council (BMAC) and the National Guard
 show off their harvest from Frog Hollow’s ½ acre Food Bank
Garden.  BMAC contracts with Frog Hollow as part of
 WSDA and Harvest Against Hunger’s Farm to Food Pantry

When COVID-19 struck our state in February, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) rose to the challenge, responding in real-time to adapt safety guidelines, distribution networks, food procurement, processing, storage and financing models in a difficult, rapidly evolving environment. 

COVID-19 unleashed a devastating wave of illness that spread so fast and uncontrollably that within weeks of the initial infections, a statewide shutdown of many businesses and a mandatory stay-at-home order became the only option for slowing the contagion. 

The response saved lives but it also wiped out hundreds of thousands of Washington jobs, threatened our food supply chain, and put millions of Washingtonians at risk of going hungry. 

A multi-pronged response

From the onset, WSDA stepped up to activate and execute a multi-pronged response to coordinate, administer and carry out a massive hunger-relief effort to address a situation with an estimated 1.6 to 2.2 million people at risk of food insecurity. 

The agency secured more than $75 million of state and federal dollars for food assistance. It worked to help state philanthropic organizations raise more than $10 million for food assistance. It pioneered innovative new projects, such as working with AMI Airlines to redirect frozen airline meals to people in need at a time when air traffic had ground to a halt. 

The agency threw its all into the effort and that was just the start. WSDA partnered with private donors, other state and federal agencies, and tapped its own emergency funds to procure food, personal protective equipment and everything from paper boxes to additional cold storage facilities.  

WSDA has played a lead role in stabilizing the food supply chain, ensuring food access to a soaring number of food insecure Washingtonians, and providing technical assistance to farmers and producers who have adapted their business models to secure new markets. 

The effort required establishing new partnerships with major hunger-relief organizations to tap into existing distribution networks, facilities and expertise to make sure the food would get to those in need. WSDA continues to work with schools, food banks, farmers, processors and the National Guard in this endeavor. 

The agency developed new arrangements to redirect food originally intended for restaurants and even airlines to people in need, as well as establishing a strategic reserve of shelf-stable food for the need that remains.

For nearly six months, WSDA and its partners have been providing food assistance for people experiencing difficulties during the COVID-19 crisis. With the help of National Guard members, WSDA has distributed more than 1 million Washington Emergency Food boxes and helped food pantries across the state stock up on food for hungry families. 

This work is in addition to distributing roughly 1 million pounds of food to almost 200,000 Washingtonians each week through WSDA’s Food Assistance program. 

To ensure our ability to address a potential food security crisis, WSDA also secured more than $75 million of emergency funding through the state Office of Financial Management since the beginning of COVID-19.  

$10 million in April from the Disaster Relief Account.

$51 million in May from federal CARES Act stabilization funding. 

$15 in June -- $4 million CARES stabilization funding and $11 million from the Disaster Relief Account

This money was used for:

Capacity investments to help move higher volumes of food through the emergency food system, including more perishables like fresh produce and frozen meals.

Support of the state-funded Emergency Food Assistant Program, including food assistance to the tribes.  

Food Assistance Program pilot projects getting fresh food and frozen prepared meals to communities with high need and low food access.

Shelf-stable food procurement to offset unfulfilled bids for USDA commodities promised to the hunger relief network through the federal Families First legislation.

Ongoing emergency food box production and distribution.

Establishment of a strategic reserve of food to mitigate ongoing supply chain disruptions.

Procuring PPE, boxes, and disinfectant to support the hunger relief network with safe distribution models.

Redefining an agency

Beyond the raw numbers, the crisis has redefined WSDA’s entire organization. The agency has undertaken many new tasks and challenges to ensure ongoing food production and access to food in Washington. Some of WSDA’s actions and innovations include:

Multi-agency food security coordination – At Gov. Jay Inslee’s request, Director Sandison joined the Governor’s staff in leading the Food Security Coordination Team established in March. Working alongside other state agencies, the state Emergency Operations Center, FEMA and key non-government (NGOs) hunger-relief partners, WSDA quickly expanded its capacity to provide food assistance and helped plan, prepare and take action to enhance emergency food system operations and prevent a hunger crisis. 

WSDA Director Derek Sandison tours 
a Fife warehouse now housing a strategic 
reserve of shelf-stable emergency food. 
Washington Emergency Food Initiative – In partnership with the Governor’s office and NGO hunger relief organizations -- Northwest Harvest, Food Lifeline, and Second Harvest -- WSDA launched an initiative to procure and distribute shelf-stable emergency food to hunger relief partners statewide. 

Strategic Reserve of Emergency Food – High competition for products, long lead times, and nearly empty food bank warehouses in April compelled WSDA to procure shelf stable emergency food to ensure availability of food throughout the emergency food system. These foods will be distributed to our food assistance contractors and our Washington Emergency Food Initiative partners. 

Food Assistance Funding – Additional state funds have been issued to increase state and federal emergency food assistance funding. 

WSDA partnered with Harvest Against Hunger to help
 buy cold storage units for hunger relief programs. One
recipient, the Kalispel Tribe said the new freezers
"opened the doors to better dietary options".
Emergency Food Procurement –Orders for hunger relief organizations have quadrupled in volume and availability and food supply chain challenges persist. Through all of this, WSDA has been able to increase our orders and distribute food. In addition, WSDA has backfilled food orders in response to a large increase in the number of canceled USDA foods. 

Emergency Food System Capacity Investments – WSDA provided millions in federal CARES funding to hunger relief organizations so they could increase their storage capacity for cold, frozen and dry products. This became an increased priority due to the influx of fresh food boxes through the USDA Farm to Families Food Box Program and the increasing amount of fresh and frozen foods through TEFAP.

Emergency Food Pilots (Flexible Funding) – The CARES funding allowed WSDA to create pilot projects to fill emergency food gaps in a COVID-19 environment.  As shelf-stable foods became a challenge to obtain, the agency diversified strategies to fresh and frozen foods. The Charlie’s Produce pilot, for example, provided fresh food boxes to rural areas and tribes, as well as supported local farmers. The AMI “Airline” Farm to Freezer local pilot project allows for the purchase of local foods from farmers in Whatcom County to be turned into soups that can be frozen and distributed to food insecure families.

Farm to School – WSDA facilitated connections between school meal programs and local farms and distributors to support local supply chain functioning as school cafeterias closed but meal programs continued to provide food to children in need. 

The road ahead

The emergency food system may be forever changed as a result of COVID-19.  But at WSDA, we are committed to supporting hunger relief professionals and households that have been impacted by this crisis. 

While the months ahead remain uncertain, we are confident in the strategies we’ve implemented to shore up the operations, staffing, cold storage capacity and food supply of the hunger relief network to face whatever challenges may lie ahead.  Through our work with the Governor’s office on the Food Security Coordination team, we continue to address critical needs through collaboration and innovation.  

Our work will inform the Legislature, our congressional delegation, and our partners at USDA about the needs of Washingtonians and the opportunities that lie ahead to support all aspects of growing, processing and distributing food, protecting animal and plant health as well as our precious natural resources, helping our farmers and producers connect with markets for their products, assuring consumers that their food is safe, and making sure everyone in our state has access to good food.