ROCHESTER, Minn. — U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky, U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn., along with several other representatives with Minnesota agricultural groups, were at Channel One Food Bank on Aug. 28 to tout the Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

The program is part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, aimed at providing markets to farmers who have seen changes to supply chains due to the pandemic as well as helping the growing number of food-insecure Americans. On Aug. 25, President Donald Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced up to an additional $1 billion was being allocated for the food box program.

"The additional funding allows the program to continue critical support to farmers, distributors and American families in need," said the press release announcing the added funding.

The group in Rochester attended a roundtable and tour, which was closed to the press for social distancing purposes, with Channel One Executive Director Virginia Merritt. Hagedorn, Censky and Merritt held a press conference in the Channel One parking lot afterward.

Censky said it was great for him to be in Rochester "to see the great work that Channel One is doing" as a major food bank in Minnesota. He said Channel One has been a participant in many of the USDA food programs, including the most recent Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

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"So far we have distributed over 75 million food boxes," Censky said.

Merritt said that before the pandemic, 1 in 11 Minnesotans went hungry. During the pandemic, that has increased to 1 in 8 Minnesotans. And she said they're starting to see another surge in demand as extra unemployment payments have ended.

Hagedorn said that Congress was "happy to appropriate money" to make things like the food box program happen, and thanked Censky for doing the work to put it together.

"The people here at the food bank and food shelves are passionate folks looking out for members of our community most in need," Hagedorn said.

Hagedorn said on top of the Minnesotans who are going hungry right now, farmers in the state are also in need of assistance from the USDA and federal government.

"Our producers are who makes this food possible in order to be distributed to those in need," Hagedorn said.

In Rochester for the event at Channel One was Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, as well as representatives from the Minnesota Pork Producers, Minnesota Corn Growers Association and Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. Hagedorn said it was crucial to make sure that "independent farmers were able to make it from one side of the coronavirus to the other."

The entire service area of Channel One is considered to be rural, Merritt said.

"So when the USDA makes purchases from farmers, not only is it putting food on the table for our clients that need it, but it's also supporting those farm economies," she said. "We know that hunger in rural communities is real, and their economies depend on agriculture."

Merritt said that Channel One greatly appreciates being reimbursed by the USDA for some of the costs of distributing food.

"We have the most amazing warehouse team and amazing drivers, but we are maxed out on out DOT driving hours and ability to transport," she said. "So we appreciate the support in that area very much."

Going through a third round of contracts for the food box program, Censky said that one motivation for the stop in Rochester was to listen to the feedback the food box program has gotten so far.

"One of the things we talked about today, after some of the feedback from the food partners, was making sure we are delivering to the last mile," said Censky. "And making sure that the full distribution cost is covered on that."

Another potential fix the program is looking to make is making sure there are no pockets in the areas it covers.

"We want to make sure that the food assistance is being spread out to the people that need it," he said.