Rep. Dusty Johnson stood in the Slumberland parking lot late Wednesday afternoon, preparing for a shift of helping out with the latest food box giveaway at the Mitchell Food Pantry.

“This is where the rubber really hits the road,” Johnson told the Mitchell Republic. “This is where all the lofty ideas in Washington, D.C. actually get deployed in helping families in need.”

Johnson was not alone in his efforts. Dozens of volunteers were preparing to distribute boxes of food that included produce, dairy, pre-cooked meat and gallons of milk to a long line of cars that stretched around the block. They were gathered to take part in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which is a partnership between farmers, ranchers, specialty crop producers, food processors and nonprofit organizations to ensure that all Americans have access to fresh and wholesome food during the COVID-19 national emergency.

The food box giveaway was made possible by a federal program developed earlier this year. United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) in April. The USDA program takes several actions to assist farmers, ranchers and consumers in response to the COVID-19 national emergency. President Donald Trump directed the USDA to craft the $19 billion immediate relief program to provide critical support to farmers and ranchers, maintain the integrity of the food supply chain and ensure Americans continue to receive and have access to needed food.

Johnson, who serves as a ranking member of the Ag Nutrition subcommittee has been involved in various hearings on oversight on the program. He said more than 95,000 boxes had been distributed to families in South Dakota and more than 50 million have gone out across the nation.

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Congressman Dusty Johnson loads up with boxes of food to put in a person's vehicle while taking part in the Farmer to Families Food Box Program distribution event on Wednesday in the former Slumberland parking lot. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Congressman Dusty Johnson loads up with boxes of food to put in a person's vehicle while taking part in the Farmer to Families Food Box Program distribution event on Wednesday in the former Slumberland parking lot. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“South Dakota is so well-served because of Feeding South Dakota and their partners like the Mitchell Food Pantry and others. South Dakota, per capita, is receiving more benefit from this program than most other states, by and large because we have highly-competent and organized leaders like Feeding South Dakota to make sure this program is being rolled out well. South Dakota is well-served by that,” Johnson said.

Matt Gassen, CEO of Feeding South Dakota, was also on hand for the event. The organization has been an important partner in the program, helping procure food products for distribution and then getting it to outlets like the Mitchell Food Pantry.

“This is a prime example of what a truck-to-trailer delivery looks like. They brought this load of product right to the distribution location, and it will come off the truck and into the cars and vehicles of the individuals who are coming to get food,” Gassen said. “Not only is it great product that’s made available, but also the fact that in a lot of cases they are able to take it and deliver it to the distribution site.”

Gassen said Feeding South Dakota has been able to reach out further in its work because of the USDA program to address the increased need of South Dakotans due to COVID-19. The organization is now operating in more than 100 different communities in all 66 counties in the state and has three distribution centers in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City.

“Prior to COVID-19, we were only doing it in 60-some communities on a semi-regular basis, but since the virus, we’re up to over 100 communities that we’re visiting at least monthly,” Gassen said.

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program has received some criticism from lawmakers, with some saying that the program fell short of its initial commitment and reports of waste and abuse. Johnson said the program is not perfect, but the benefits it provides to the needy are too substantial to ignore.

Crates filled with half-gallon bottles of milk are stocked up ready for handing out during the Farmer to Families Food Box Program distribution event on Wednesday in the former Slumberland parking lot. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Crates filled with half-gallon bottles of milk are stocked up ready for handing out during the Farmer to Families Food Box Program distribution event on Wednesday in the former Slumberland parking lot. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“We need to look at these things comprehensively, because there’s no perfect program. We don’t get rid of social security because there’s waste and fraud and abuse, because there is waste, fraud and abuse,” Johnson said. “You need to minimize and eliminate that, and given how quickly this program came online and how many families have received the benefits of the program like this under the act, to me it’s remarkable how successful it’s been. Not to say it’s perfect, but it’s been remarkably successful.”

Karen Pooley, one of the directors at the Mitchell Food Pantry, talked with several volunteers as they prepared to start distributing the food boxes. She said this was the third such food box giveaway the pantry had held. The first giveaway saw 350 boxes given out, while the second saw about 400 distributed. She said the Mitchell Food Pantry was looking to give away its 1,000th box of food with this session.

It’s a milestone that underscores the importance of the program and the value of organizations like the Mitchell Food Pantry and Feeding South Dakota, she said.

“The first time we gave out 350 and the second time it was about 400. Today we were going for 450, but I see they brought us 488,” Pooley said. “It’s kind of amazing.”