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Trade war with China a boon for food banks

Federal government’s trade mitigation package puts $20 million in extra food in pantries

At Wednesday’s mobile food pantry set up in front of Vancouver’s Women, Infants and Children office, there was an unusual sight: fresh milk.

Fresh milk — not shelf-stable or powdered milk — is something pantries in Washington have not previously been able to get from the state Department of Agriculture until the trade mitigation package, says Kim Eads, manager of food assistance programs. The milk and a boom of other foods are an unusual result of the trade war with China.

To offset the impact of retaliatory tariffs, the $12 billion trade mitigation package was launched last summer. It includes about $1.2 billion to purchase food from farmers to be distributed through U.S. Department of Agriculture food programs for lower-income families, the largest being the Emergency Food Assistance Program. The Washington Department of Agriculture went from providing food banks with $10 million worth of food annually to $30 million this year, Eads said.

What does $20 million in extra food look like? Well, it includes 2 million pounds of apples, 3 million pounds of pork and nearly $3 million worth of nuts.

“Things we normally don’t get,” Eads said.

Some of the farmers selling their products to the USDA that end up on Washington food pantry shelves are local, such as Seattle-headquartered Darigold milk. This relationship could continue. Eads said there are plans for another trade mitigation package in 2020.

“That’s a really fun problem to solve because it means we have to become more creative about getting food to people quicker,” said Matt Edmonds, spokesman for the Clark County Food Bank.

The food bank receives food from several sources, including grocery stores, food drives and the Oregon Food Bank. Every week, USDA commodity food is delivered to its warehouse in the St. Johns area. The USDA is among the larger suppliers and gave 846,924 pounds or about 13 percent of the total amount of food in 2018, which was less than what it sent in 2017.

In the first six months of this year, the food bank has received 970,230 pounds of USDA commodities — a 129 percent increase from last year’s monthly average. About 38 percent is refrigerated food and less than 5 percent is frozen; the rest doesn’t require refrigeration, such as rice, peanut butter and beans.

“Being a food bank, we love that we’re able to get more food to people in need, so we welcome the extra work that it might require to get the food to people in our community,” Edmonds said.

The food bank hasn’t hired any additional warehouse staff to deal with the extra food, but there has been an increase in volunteers this year. Volunteers do everything from sorting and inspecting donations to repacking food to driving and delivering food.

Food Bank Fresh is one of the ways the food bank distributes food faster. People were lined up around the corner to get fresh produce, milk and pantry staples at Wednesday’s market. Edmonds said Town Plaza in central Vancouver is a great location because the building is a hub for social services that food pantry clients may already be using.

Food Bank Fresh takes place around the county and lasts about an hour or so, until the food runs out.

“We try to bring enough for everyone. Still, the most popular items disappear first,” Edmonds said.

Volunteers say dairy and produce are among the most popular items. Food Bank Fresh is in its fourth year, and there are 50 of these pop-up markets planned this summer, a sharp increase from the dozen put on last summer. The plan to dramatically expand the program was already in the works before the food bank learned of the trade mitigation package and the additional incoming food, Edmonds said.

At each event, the food bank typically does a food demo sampling recipes made from available items. (Wednesday’s was a kale-apple slaw.)

“Certain foods we have to push,” said Diana Rogers, who’s been a volunteer since 2015.

Jennifer Runov attends Food Bank Fresh events to seek out produce and other nutrient-dense foods for her family.

“It’s a lot of processed, sugary foods at the food pantries,” she said.

She hasn’t noticed a difference in the amount of food offered. If anything it seems like there is less food, she said.

Volunteers had boxes of food behind them that they used to restock tables as clients shopped. Between 70 and 150 families attend each Food Bank Fresh, volunteer Cheryl Rienecker said.

Not every food bank and pantry is able to easily adapt to the bounty coming from the trade mitigation programs.

“The response from our hunger-relief agencies and the people they serve has been overwhelmingly positive, but there have been some challenges in distributing a dramatic increase in fresh and frozen foods,” Eads said in a prepared statement. “Some food pantries really don’t have the ability to store large quantities and struggle with capacity issues, but many have been able to expand their hours of operation to move the perishable food quickly or invest in more freezers and refrigerators.”

Rotary First Harvest and Northwest Harvest teamed up to provide $500 grants toward the purchase of refrigerators and freezers for hunger relief agencies across Washington. Earlier this month, the groups announced they had fully expended the funding and hope to continue the program.

Eads said that bigger distributors, which includes the Clark County Food Bank, have stored food for smaller jurisdictions such as Klickitat and Skamania counties. And, pantries have put on pop-up events similar to Food Bank Fresh to ensure food doesn’t go to waste.

She said it’s a big deal because pantries that would’ve normally spent money on certain foods they’re now receiving from the trade mitigation package can spend that money on foods they don’t get from the government.

“While there have been some challenges, they are small compared to the benefit that lower-income families are receiving through this program,” Eads said.

Top 10 foods that the Washington State Department of Agriculture received through the trade mitigation package (in pounds):

Pork: 3,206,992 … Milk, Fresh: 2,930,485 … Beans: 2,355,484 … Apples: 2,317,835 … Potatoes, fresh: 2,258,000 … Oranges: 1,548,566 … Rice: 1,541,330 … Grapes: 964,633 … Orange Juice: 861,410 … Nuts: 797,132. SOURCE: Washington State Department of Agriculture

Clark County Food Bank

• Want to volunteer at the Clark County Food Bank? Visit to learn more and sign up.
• Want to get food from the next Food Bank Fresh market? Call the Clark County Food Bank at 360-693-0939.

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