Forages are all tucked in for the season at our dairy so there is a bit of time to breath before grain harvest and corn stalk bales. I was mostly caught up with calf barn work, so I decided to find a volunteer opportunity. I like to help in the community, and I have had the Nicollet County Food Box give away on my radar.
    I had seen emails about the need for volunteers to help with the program three other times this summer. The fourth distribution was Sept. 28 and that date and time worked out well for me. I signed up along with my neighbor, Joni, a farmer and early childhood and family educator, making it extra fun.
    The food distribution event was called the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and was open to all Nicollet County residents. CFAP is a United States Department of Agriculture program operation by Second Harvest Heartland in Minnesota and is locally implemented by volunteer groups.
    When Joni and I arrived at the Nicollet County Fairgrounds, we parked in a special area, sanitized, masked up, listened to an orientation and signed off that we understood what was expected of us regarding being non-discriminatory in handing out the food. There were about 20 volunteers of ages from youth to retirement, staff from local agencies and two semi-truck drivers who handled unloading the pallets of food boxes from the trucks as we needed them.
    Two lines of vehicles formed. The volunteers organized into two teams to check people in, ask people how many households to load per car and then to place boxes into their trunks or backseats. We quickly loaded two vehicles at once, they drove out and two more drove up.
    The event started at 11 a.m., but when we arrived at 9:30, a line of cars was waiting. At 10:20, we were ready for the first cars to come into the loading area. Our teams placed a box of produce, a box of dairy and a box of frozen protein (turkey meatballs and pork sausages) per household into the vehicles. Listed on the side of the box of dairy were the contents: 2 gallons of milk, one large carton of cottage cheese, one large carton of yogurt and butter. I am not sure of the exact pounds of the butter, but the yogurt and cottage cheese looked like food service-sized containers through the clear tape on the top of the box.
    As an added bonus, one extra pallet contained boxes of cheese. We included one box per car and asked people to divide the cheese among the various households. I was able to see that the cheese boxes contained three packages of shredded cheddar, two 5-pound boxes of American processed and white cheddar cheese slices and a couple smaller blocks of cheese. We ran out of the cheese about half-way through the event.
    At noon, only a few cars trickled in. We had distributed 300 pounds of the 500 pounds of food boxes on the trucks. Joni and I left shortly after, so I do not know if all of the food was given out or what happened to whatever was left at 1 p.m. when the event was over. At the first distribution for Nicollet County in June, 711 households were served.
    The program is a part of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s idea to purchase and provide boxes of excess food usually sold to food service. As we know well by now, there is a slower pace at food service venues since the March government shutdowns. No doubt this program, now called the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, implemented nationwide this summer has helped to buoy our milk checks after the wild milk price swings resulting from the COVID-19 shutdown.
    USDA signaled that it will spend up to $1 billion on dairy products alone, with the program to likely end as dollars run out in October. “When measured in terms of impact, this program stands out as the largest influence on dairy markets today,” as reported in the Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative Market Newsletter, August 2020 issue. A chart in the article written by Mike North, principal, Commodity Risk Management Group, shows up to 3% of total U.S. milk production has been purchased by the government from May through September.
    The program has benefited our farm and likely many others for the time being. I wanted to see for myself what this program is doing in my community and to know if it is helping people. I believe it is.
    The best part of helping that day was to receive a spoken thank you or see smiles on the faces of the recipients. It felt good knowing the milk we work hard to produce and ship to a milk, butter or cheese plant actually is being provided to families who can use it for a satisfying meal or snack.
    Jean dairy farms with her husband, Rolf, and brother-in-law, Mike, and children Emily, Matthias and Leif. They farm near St. Peter, Minnesota, in Norseland, where she is still trying to fit in with the Norwegians and Swedes. They milk 200 cows and farm 650 acres. She can be reached at jeanannexstad@gmail.com.