Whether you’re a farmer, food bank or school serving meals to-go during the COVID-19 pandemic, the last mile is frequently the hardest equation to solve. It’s one that the USDA “Farmers to Families” program has aimed to cover, with $3 billion in contracts with vendors to provide nonprofits with “truck to trunk” food distribution. But as food banks and other community organizations apply for deliveries from the approved vendors, that last mile – getting the delivered food into the hands of the hungry – is turning out to be a considerable barrier. The CEO at the Food Bank of the Rockies says that distributing food donated through the Farmers to Families program is costing $40,000 per month just for transportation. Since May 15, the San Antonio Food Bank has spent more than $83,000 to store and distribute the food they’ve received from an event company that was awarded the USDA contract for the region.
Like food banks, schools all over the country have drastically altered how they feed kids during this pandemic, pivoting to outdoor distribution, grab-and-go pre-packaged food and social distancing in their kitchens. But the last mile for students – between food distribution sites and their front doors – can be the hardest. In the first few weeks of distribution this spring, some schools saw only a fraction of their usual free and reduced-price eligible students showing up to collect meals, sometimes attributing this to lack of transportation. So some schools mobilized their dormant fleet of school buses and drivers to deliver meals to distribution locations throughout their districts.
For low-income families who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or who have received Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) to feed their kids while school meals are unavailable, the expansion of online EBT purchases offers the potential to make purchases without risking exposure. However, in most states this expedited pilot includes only a few big retailers, leaving out local and regional producers who could serve this market. Moreover, online EBT customers do not have the option for pickup in many states, but delivery fees can’t be covered by SNAP or P-EBT funds (which must be used only for food). Immediate measures to help smaller retailers deliver during the pandemic, as well as long-term solutions to make sure all eligible retailers can accept online SNAP, have been proposed in Congress but not yet passed.
For those who are able to stay home, delivery services spare customers exposure from going into grocery stores with long lines or tight spaces. But the increasing reliance on convenient delivery means that the last mile – from the warehouse, grocery store, or restaurant – is served by workers who are risking exposure.
Food banks and local food pantries also face their own challenges in the last mile, the miles that patrons have to travel to access these distribution sites. A recent survey by Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, reported that 40% of clients are getting help from a food bank for the first time. For these new customers, first identifying and then traveling to a distribution location can be challenging, especially when avoiding public transportation. Some food banks have undertaken mapping projects to link customers with resources and help them find out what’s available in their area.
Farmers who relied on institutional sales to restaurants or schools have been left with a surplus in their fields, but for them, the last mile to the food bank is expensive and time-consuming. The cost of harvest, transportation, and navigating the patchwork of operating hours of local food pantries – often narrow windows of time, constrained by volunteers (many of whom are elderly at at high-risk) and a lack of storage capability at the distribution site – means extra difficulty in getting excess produce to its destination. New York state is trying to solve this problem through $5,000 refundable tax credits to farmers for donating crops, and $25 million in funds for food banks to buy from local and regional producers and invest in storage capacity. This approach is faster, more flexible, and more cost-effective than the federal Farmers to Families approach.
The “last mile” is often an afterthought in government programs, as evidenced by the Farmers to Families dilemma. COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to evaluate our supply chain and the security of our food system. During and after this public health crisis, public investments should increase the capacity of local and regional food systems to bridge that last mile.