When the coronavirus closed restaurants, some Missouri food suppliers got creative

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in early March, C&C Produce, a North Kansas City-based wholesaler, began distributing boxes of its own produce to people in need.

The wholesaler had extra produce because many restaurants and other customers weren’t buying. So it decided to sell produce directly to the community.

C&C Produce began selling the boxes for $20 and posting about them on its Facebook page. They quickly became popular.

“We had just unbelievable amounts of success in doing this program and putting these boxes together,” Nick Conforti, vice president of C&C Produce, said.

Conforti said his company had several hundred followers on Facebook before. Now, it has over 22,000.

C&C Produce has been preparing boxes like this one for the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program. | Courtesy of Nick Conforti

A month after C&C Produce began its own program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on April 17 that it would buy and distribute food to those who need it. The Farmers to Families Food Box Program is a part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

The USDA plans to purchase up to $3 billion in fresh produce, meat and dairy products from suppliers around the country. The suppliers pack their products into boxes and transport them to food banks, community and faith-based organizations and other non-profits.

The program began on May 15 and will run until June 30. But individual suppliers might have the chance to extend their participation in the program.

There are over 200 suppliers participating in the program. Six are based in Missouri.

When Conforti heard about the program, he felt like it was a natural fit because C&C Produce was already doing something similar. Now, instead of charging for the boxes, the wholesaler can distribute boxes for free.

“The government is paying us for the boxes. And our responsibility is everything from the procurement, to the labor of putting it together, to distribution, to receiving payment, making sure we pay all of our vendors in a timely fashion. We were responsible also to go out and find all the nonprofits to give the boxes to,” Conforti said.

C&C Produce puts together and sends out up to 140,000 boxes weekly.

“The feedback that we’ve gotten from (the organizations) of just people crying when they get these boxes and, you know, talking about they haven’t had healthy foods like this in months,” Conforti said. “It really is heartwarming to know that the boxes are going to such a great cause and people who are in such great need of it.”

C&C Produce is distributing boxes to Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The wholesaler isn’t the only supplier in Missouri that has started distributing food through the USDA’s program.

The Missouri Rural Crisis Center, a Columbia-based organization that advocates for family farms, saw how customers and staff of local restaurants were being affected by the coronavirus shutdowns. Patchwork Family Farms, a program of the crisis center, made 400 relief boxes for people like restaurant staff who had been laid off.

“We didn’t have extra funding for those 400 boxes. We just did it,” Tim Gibbons, the center’s communications director, said.

Later, the center received funds from Veterans United and Heart of Missouri United Way to make additional boxes. It also started a meal program at local restaurants, Gibbons said. Now, the center is participating in the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

It is a part of the center’s mission to help people who are low-income have access to family farm raised meat, Gibbons said. The center is distributing its boxes through local food banks.

“We’re a believer in uniting during times of crisis and during good times and organizing for things that matter,” Gibbons said.

This story was produced by the Missouri Information Corps, a project of the Missouri School of Journalism. How has the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted food supply chains in your community? Email us your stories at moinformationcorps@gmail.com

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