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Food box contracts cause concern

Published: Sep. 29, 2020 at 5:59 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 29, 2020 at 6:51 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - The Farmers to Families food box program distributed tens of thousands of boxes of food throughout the Green Mountains during the height of the pandemic. Much of that food was sourced locally. But now, there are concerns that could change, potentially hurting local farmers' bottom lines.

Over the first two phases, the federally funded program distributed close to 570,000 boxes of food to roughly 29,000 Vermont households. The Abbey Group, a food service company based in Enosburgh Falls, was awarded a $5.4 million contract to help make it happen. Much of the food was Vermont-grown.

According to the Abbey Group, 19 Vermont farms contributed 1 million pounds of fruits and vegetables. Five dairy producers, including Cabot, provided more than 663,000 pounds of butter and cheese. The milk was supplied by Hood and three Vermont dairy farms: Thomas, Monument and Kingdom Creamery.

Willing Hands in Norwich received a much smaller grant for the same purpose. The organization helped ship out 7,000 boxes to roughly 80 food pantries throughout the Upper Valley.

“We used our local connections with existing food shelves that we deliver to every week,” said Gabe Zoerheide of Willing Hands.

Those who help fight hunger every day say the program has two benefits-- healthy food to those who need it and a shot in the arm for the region’s farmers.

“There has been a lot of disruptions in the purchasing of local food and this enabled us to support some of our local farmers,” Zoerheide said.

But the grants for phase three of the food box program were awarded to two out-of-state companies. That’s raising concern from Vermont’s congressional delegation as well as the governor that the food might not be sourced locally.

“We hope that the provider will continue to use some of these local farms and local entities and local products in the near future. But yeah, I share the concern of the congressional delegation,” said Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont.

Willing hands is continuing its daily mission with support from the community.

“Hunger remains really one of the biggest issues, especially during this pandemic. And we are concerned about meeting those families' and seniors' needs, now and into the future,” Zoerheide said.

The two companies are Costa Fruit & Produce out of Massachusetts and Sysco based in Texas. We reached out to both for comment. However, the Vermont Foodbank tells us that Costa will not be using any Vermont produced food in the boxes.

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