It was a blistering hot Wednesday afternoon along the Wasatch Front when my phone chirped at me. I ignored the incoming email and concentrated on the traffic. Later, I would reflect that this was the first note of one of the largest food giveaways in the history of Uinta County.
On Saturday, Aug. 22, about 400 cars from all over the county came to Western Wyoming Beverage to receive up to three boxes — 35 pounds — of frozen meat and cheese per family. There to assist were 40 volunteers from evangelical churches around the community. Each simple transaction of giving and receiving took only a few minutes. But it was part of a much larger story. That is the story that I want to tell.
The email came from Tim Floyd, the pastor of Abundant Life Assembly of God. He passed along a newsletter article from July 14 that announced an opportunity for Wyoming. If we could organize enough volunteers and find the right facilities, Convoy of Hope, a nonprofit associated with the Assemblies of God, could supply a truckload of meats and cheeses to Evanston for free distribution to all.
Groundwork began immediately. Even before we began the application process, we needed to find a cooling facility that could handle an entire semi-load — 24 pallets — of frozen meats and cheese. Pastors fanned out in the community, exploring options. While there are some large commercial kitchens in our community, none had the capacity for such a large shipment. Even rentals seemed unavailable.
Then local business manager Michael Searle heard about the need and offered the use of Western Wyoming Beverage’s refrigerated warehouse. Not only did he offer it for receiving and temporary storage, he would even make it available for the distribution itself. Without the use of their storage space, their forklift and their cooling equipment this project was stopped in its tracks. Mr. Searle and the entire crew at Western Wyoming Beverage deserve a big Wyoming Thank you!
Once the necessary facilities had been located, Floyd went forward with the application process. He proceeded in blind faith that God would provide the necessary volunteers and publicity to get 18 tons of food delivered in a single day. He was not disappointed. As the day approached, we were no longer concerned with having enough volunteers but with having too many.
What needed to happen on the ground in Evanston was only the final link in a chain that spans miles and decades from the rich black earth of the Midwest to the tables of millions of Americans.
A good place to begin the story is at a signing ceremony on Jan. 29, 2001. There President George W. Bush signed an executive order that created the “USDA Center for Faith-based and Community Initiatives.”
There are thousands upon thousands of these small community organizations and church charities that have the pulse of their communities’ needs and a heart for serving them. The “Faith-Based Initiative” sought to harness this energy and know-how as a force multiplier for government welfare. This network, cultivated by the USDA over the past two decades, was poised for action when COVID-19 hit America.
On March 18 — in the earliest moments of the COVID-19 shutdowns — Pres. Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. One of the central concerns of this legislation was to use established channels of government and private partnerships to respond to the crisis as quickly as possible. The process of creating new agencies for the distribution of virus relief would slow the relief by months and years. But the network of relationships built by the USDA was made for the task.
One of the provisions of this Coronavirus Response Act allocated three billion dollars to purchase agricultural products and distribute them to those in need. The next four weeks found the USDA and its Center for Faith-Based Initiatives working to use that allocation in the best way possible. On April 17, USDA secretary, Will Perdue, announced the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. This program was designed to help three different sectors that were hit by the shutdowns.
First, it would assist farmers who suddenly experienced a massive loss of markets due to the closing of restaurants across America. You may remember heart-rending stories of milk tanks being emptied on the ground and cattle, hogs and chickens euthanized by the truckload. You will also remember asking, “Why waste it? Why not give it away?” This program is the answer to those questions.
Second, as the restaurant industry slowed to a halt, so did the restaurant-supply industry. Trucks and truckers that made regular deliveries to a bevy of eating establishments suddenly had no place to go. If alternative work was not found for this sector, the disruption would cause yet another wave of layoffs in the trucking industry.
How would those families make ends meet? How would those businesses remain open to serve the restaurants after the pandemic? How would the repair shops, fuel stations, and logistic companies stay in business? So, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program also served this sector of the economy. The trucker who delivered Evanston’s meat on Aug. 21 kept his job, in part, through this work.
Third, the program was designed to distribute food to people around the nation who were experiencing loss of income due to the virus. How many people in Evanston have been laid off? How many small shops and eateries have gone out of business? How many laborers have been scheduled for fewer hours? While not everyone is suddenly destitute, we are all tightening belts and trimming budgets. A 20-pound box of meat — or two or three — is nothing to sneeze at.
Dubbed the Farm to Families Food Box Program, its first round of purchases occurred from May 15 through June 30. With $1.2 billion, the USDA served 35.6 million families with fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat products. Distributors and vendors were vetted for their trustworthiness in accounting for the grants they received in years past. After the fact, invoices were matched to deliveries to make sure that the food got to the people who needed it.
Uinta County got in on the second round that began on July 1 and will run until Aug. 31. It received 1,850 of the 32.2 million boxes expected to be delivered by September. Secretary Perdue said: “The program is accomplishing what we intended — supporting U.S. farmers and distributors and getting food to those who need it most. It’s a real trifecta, which is why we call it a win-win-win.”
In addition to last Saturday’s distribution organized by Evanston Evangelicals United, there will be a distribution of non-perishable foods next Saturday, Aug. 29. Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies partnered with the City of Evanston will be distributing food from Crossroads New Life Fellowship (101 Commerce Dr.) beginning at 1 p.m.
At a time of hardship, economic downturn and growing agitation, there is nothing that builds community more than joining together to complete a complex and strenuous project. It turns our eyes outward in service and upward in thanksgiving. That’s good medicine.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.