COVID-19 Need Spurs Dairy-UConn Food Pantry Partnership

UConn 4-H Connects Dairy To Food Pantries Amid COVID-19
A glass of milk a day is important part of dairy nutrition. ( Farm Journal Media )

Dairy farmers don’t work in a vacuum. They’re woven into the fabric of their local communities. So when the repercussions of coronavirus began to appear this spring, University of Connecticut (UConn) Extension’s Bill Davenport, Litchfield County 4-H educator, and local 4-H members, parents and leaders stepped up. They brought dairy producers, cooperatives and food pantries together to stave off food waste while ensuring surplus dairy products went to families in need, including those who lost jobs resulting from the pandemic.

To date, more than 100,000 lb. of dairy products have been donated.

“Since our county had already chosen our 2020 4-H theme to be Operation Community Impact with a focus being on food insecurity back in January before the pandemic, we were already working with pantries and area organizations on how to educate others about this critical dilemma in our area,” explains Davenport, who continues to serve as the Operation Dairy Impact coordinator. “As a result of our efforts with milk distribution, we are now thinking about how we can expand our efforts to help find more surplus food and get it into the hands of those in need to reduce food waste.”

Farmers First. The idea for the initiative started with Davenport, who grew up on a dairy farm and helps milk on weekends at his brother’s farm, where he owns 20 cows. Davenport reached out to Guida, Dairy Farmers of America and Cabot Creamery to secure major donations. Then he worked with Litchfield County 4-H members, parents and leaders to bring the project to life. 

“We have raised over $10,000 in grants and donations in our county alone to buy milk since then and have done five additional distributions of 720 gallons for each every two weeks in our county to 25 different pantries,” Davenport explains. 

Heidi Harkopf of New England Dairy helped connect Cooperative Extension to DFA for donations of surplus milk, yogurt, sour cream and ice cream. The newly conceived Operation Community Impact has helped limit dumping of milk and dairy products because of decreased demand at restaurants and lack of storage space at plants. 

UConn Extension provided the infrastructure needed to organize and distribute donations. They are the winner of the monthly Farm Journal Monthly Story Lead Contest, a partnership between eXtension and Trust In Food, a Farm Journal initiative. In June 2020, the contest focused on surfacing stories of Cooperative Extension collaborating with farmers and their communities to reduce food waste.

(Read the winning May 2020 contest entry: Screenhouses Boost Marketable Yields for Farmers from the University of Hawaii)

Thousands Served. As part of the initiative, 4-H members and volunteers work with community partners and UConn’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) to deliver milk and dairy products. DFA, Agri-Mark Cooperative/Cabot Creamery and H.P. Hood all donated products. Communities are now raising funds to purchase milk for food pantries. 

“While 4-H youth and volunteers put forth thousands of hours of community service annually, this project highlights the efforts of the youth, volunteers, faculty and staff of UConn Extension, which is part of the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, to build relationships in the community and demonstrate citizenship in this time of need,” says Jennifer Cushman, Hartford County 4-H educator and  an Operation Dairy Impact coordinator.

Eighty-eight families who are part of UConn Extension donated their time and vehicles for distribution. To date, the program has reached 10,710 Connecticut families, 96 food pantries and 57 towns.

“The Litchfield County 4-H members efforts to secure and distribute donated milk during this time of crisis for our community has been extremely helpful and very much appreciated by our clients,” notes Alisha Donovan, who leads client services with the Susan B. Anthony Project Shelter in Torrington, Conn. “As an emergency shelter that services victims of domestic violence and sexual assault who are fleeing their homes, victims often come to our shelter with limited resources. While we work with victims to help them secure benefits and make referrals for food resources, this additional assist of what some would consider the most basic of food items has been a gift.” 

Dairy contributions also have been a help to families facing economic challenges.

 “Our Freshplace food pantry serves 100 individuals and families in the north end of Hartford - the poorest neighborhoods in Hartford,” noted Lynda Waldron a leader from the Freshplace food pantry in Hartford County. “Most of our participants do not have access to a grocery store and depend on small bodegas that have a very limited supply of dairy products, fresh veggies, etc. This has become a much larger problem due to the current COVID situation. The delivery of the generous donation of milk will help not only our Freshplace participants but also many of our other clients who are having a very hard time obtaining food. … This definitely shows that we are all in this together!”

Because many dairy products have limited shelf life, it can be difficult to keep them stocked. The program has enabled food pantries to diversify their selection and add nutritional value. 

Mobilizing Support. In the weeks ahead, the program will continue, linking dairy farmers to families in need. Participants say dairy farmers in any community can take steps to implement a similar project locally.

“Based on our experience in Connecticut, if local farmers can apply for federal support (CARES Act) so that they can sell their milk and dairy products to licensed distributors that have an approved designation, then the dairy products can be distributed at a discounted price to local pantries by groups like UConn/4-H and Food Rescue US,” explains Kathy Minck of Food Rescue CT, who has coordinated dairy orders and distribution among more than 27 food pantries in northwest Connecticut. “Farmers should try to influence which distributors are approved so that there can be coverage in multiple areas of the state versus distribution being restricted to limited geographic areas.”

Watch a video showing how UConn, dairy groups and food pantries are teaming up to feed families amid COVID-19.