The U.S. Department of Agriculture is rolling out a series of programs to support food producers whose operations have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but small food producers may be falling through the cracks.

Others worry that the department’s emphasis on food banks for emergency relief is misplaced and could be harming grocery stores in local communities.

Katrina Lazare, a farmworker at Cider Mill Farms in High Rolls, N.M., has not heard of any USDA aid programs for food producers. The farm does not receive federal subsidies.

Peaches grown at Cider Mill Farms in High Rolls, N.M., can get a higher price at a farmers’ market than at wholesale, but the farmers’ market future is uncertain. (Cristina Carreon/El Paso Matters)

Lazare and the owner run the small, certified organic family farm on 11 acres in the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico by themselves, and a nearby farmer’s market accounts for a large portion of Lazare’s annual income. The fate of the farmer’s market is currently unknown due to the virus.

Peaches from major producers may generate $1.65 per pound for the wholesale grocery market, while wholesale rates for Cider Mill and other small producers are $2.50 to $2.75 per pound, Lazare said. Cider Mill’s peaches sell for $4 a pound at the farmer’s market.

“We’re going to get killed if we don’t have the farmer’s market, we’re going to have to sell everything wholesale and farms don’t have huge profit margins anyway,” Lazare said.

The federal government has allocated billions of dollars to help farmers cope with the effects of the pandemic, including food commodities going to waste because of shifts in demand or transportation reductions.

Through the Farmers to Families Food Box program, USDA is purchasing an additional $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat to connect feeding organizations directly with affected producers, but this program may primarily benefit large agricultural enterprises.

“They do source commodity products but its primarily from your larger farms,” Adriana Clowe, co-founder of Desert Spoon Food Hub in El Paso, said. “It’s not a long-term solution. This isn’t something that can sustain producers forever.”

El Pasoans Fighting Hunger CEO Susan Goodell said she was surprised USDA did select smaller producers but in some cases, small distributors have struggled to get the quantities of food required by food banks.

For the Farmers to Families Food Box program, the El Paso food bank contracted with Segovia’s Distributing Inc. for 10,400 produce boxes daily, five days a week, and for 7,000 boxes daily of liquid milk from Sarah Farms. Both companies are based in El Paso.

Grassroots hub links food directly to consumers

Food banks and grocery stores are not the only entities providing food to consumers. Desert Spoon Food Hub aims to create a sustainable market for disadvantaged small to mid-size food producers in west Texas and southeastern New Mexico.

The nonprofit works with 20 and 25 regional food producers of varying sizes, assembling boxes of fresh produce and distributing them between Las Cruces and El Paso.

Clowe said the USDA purchasing bulk large commodity food that goes straight to food banks puts those organizations in direct competition with some grocery stores, particularly small businesses.

“The dollar stops. It doesn’t get put back into the community,” Clowe said.

Clowe mentioned Food City, a chain of stores that primarily serves El Paso’s lower-income population. Clowe said as unemployment rises, more of Food City’s clients will rely on the food bank for sustenance.

“Which takes away revenue from Food City, so we might see some grocery stores at some point having to close because they have lost customers,” Clowe said.

Food boxes from Desert Spoon Food Hub await pickup at Whole Foods in West El Paso. (Photo courtesy of Adriana Clowe.)

The hub hopes to open a storefront in the Rio Grande neighborhood of El Paso, which is considered a food desert, Clowe said. But for now, the organization will continue filling food security gaps for area residents.

Clowe said food assistance programs can work in favor of grocery stores and small producers through direct financial assistance to low-income consumers, who can then acquire food at stores instead of food banks.

“Those consumers can go make choices at the grocery store and that dollar is circulated throughout the community,” Clowe said.

The main food assistance program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, which provides cash benefits to low-income households that can be used to buy food. Feeding America, a coalition of the nation’s food bank, has reported that 41 percent of the households served by its network report receiving SNAP benefits even though 88 percent are estimated to be eligible.

The role of food banks

Proponents say food banks were started to combat food insecurity during natural disasters or other emergencies. Critics argue when the federal government designates products or dollars to food banks and individuals in poverty seek aid from these institutions, small food producers whose products are sold in grocery stores may not benefit.

Sonya Warwick, communications officer at Roadrunner Food Bank in New Mexico, said food banks have worked as part of a national network to feed people during emergencies like natural disasters for more than 40 years. They also help fill gaps left by SNAP.

“Also, some folks qualify for very little in terms of their (food) benefit,” Warwick said. “For some folks we’ve talked to, if they only qualify for $10, $20, $30 a month because its income-based, those are folks who rely on our network frequently.”

“It’s been a struggle for grocery stores to keep up supplies and the transportation system is inadequate, so I think it’s not right to look at just the charitable sector and say that is the issue when the food system in the entire country is broken, and in many cases, it is the food bank that steps in to make sure people are being fed,” Goodell added.

National Guard soldiers helped El Pasoans Fighting Hunger pass out food on April 8 at the Kelly Memorial Food Pantry in Central El Paso. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

El Pasoans Fighting Hunger has grown in recent years, but distribution skyrocketed between 2019-20. The food bank’s distribution increased 400 percent between February and May of this year.

Desert Spoon was distributing up to 45 boxes weekly and now distributes around 140 boxes of food every week.

Hunger in El Paso was a chronic issue before the pandemic, Clowe said. She said El Pasoans also have a high rate of food-related illnesses tied to poor nutrition, particularly a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet.

“As a community, we have to look at is there a relationship between the two, are too many of our families chronically on food bank assistance and not getting shifted off of it so they can make healthier choices in a grocery store or get food education, which is not the fault of the food banks, this is just the food that the food banks get,” Clowe said.

Clowe said enrolling more eligible families in SNAP would allow people to make better choices in food selection, particularly with fresh produce.

But area food banks push back on suggestions that they aren’t providing healthful foods.

Warwick said food banks initially started out distributing mostly canned and boxed foods but that has shifted. “Roughly a third of our annual distribution every year is fresh fruits and vegetables,” Warwick said.

Goodell said a high percentage of El Paso food bank’s products are fresh fruits and vegetables.

The representatives also agreed each food bank was interested in partnering with more local food producers to provide fresh, local produce to clients.

Goodell said Federal Emergency Management Agency funds recently became available for food banks to purchase food.

“We have gone to every distributor locally and taken everything they have, we have gone to the largest state distributor and we are taking everything we can get our hands on, and we are now turning to largest distributors in the country. So, by FEMA empowering the food banks, that certainly empowers the small distributors,” Goodell said.

Warwick agreed that the New Mexico food bank was open to contracting with local food producers to feed more people in need.

“If local (food producers) want to work with us in more or new ways, we’re always happy to sit down and have a conversation with them,” Warwick said.

Cover photo: Katrina Lazare works at Cider Mill Farms in High Rolls, N.M. (Photo courtesy of Adriana Clowe)

Corrections: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for the farm in High Rolls. It is Cider Mill Farms, not Cider Mills Farms. Also, $1.65 a pound is what large producers are paid for peaches on the wholesale market, not what Cider Mill Farms gets.

Cristina Carreon has covered business and education at a 16-county regional newspaper in northeast Mississippi and most recently covered crime/courts and trending news for the Alamogordo Daily News/USA...