Food workers, rural Americans go hungry despite U.S. government farm aid

By Christopher Walljasper and Gabriela Bhaskar

GREEN BAY, Wis., Oct 27 (Reuters) - Yessenia Cendejas pulled up to a moving truck filled with donated food in northeastern Wisconsin, arriving at the mobile food bank straight from her job at a pizza-crust factory, to get sustenance for herself and five children.

Cendejas, 35, took a second job at a fast-food restaurant in Green Bay - whose county has Wisconsin's highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita - after her factory employer reduced her hours, but says her income is now half of what it was.

"There were times we couldn't work, so it was tough," she said. "I'm more stressed out. You start thinking, 'What do I do?'"

As hunger rises in America, the Trump administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout is under scrutiny ahead of the Nov. 3 election that could be decided by hotly contested Midwestern states like Wisconsin.

U.S. President Donald Trump has funneled a record amount of aid to the agricultural sector, the majority going to big farms over food workers or small-scale farmers. Cendejas has already voted - for Trump's Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.

Just 15 miles (24 km) from where she picked up her food, a large-scale corn and soybean farmer received $1 million in coronavirus aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the largest amount in the state, federal data shows.

Crusaders of Justicia, the Manitowoc, Wisconsin-based food relief organization that served Cendejas, has gone from serving 125 families a year to more than 3,000 in 2020.

Meanwhile, more than 54 million people in the United States could struggle to afford food during the pandemic, with the biggest increases in food insecurity in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to Feeding America, a network of 60,000 U.S. food shelters.

More people who harvest food, work in food processing and even own their own farms now need food assistance, according to dozens of food bank workers nationwide.

"A lot of these farmers have just had so much pride that they never thought about taking that trip to a local food pantry," said Melissa Larson, who manages food programs for seven counties in northwestern Wisconsin.

The Trump administration has paid farmers nearly $18 billion in direct payments since June through its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), but nearly 92% of farmers in Wisconsin received less aid than it costs to run an average dairy in the state for a month, according to a Reuters analysis of federal USDA data.

Biden leads Trump by a margin of 53% to 44% in Wisconsin, a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll showed on Monday. Trump won the state in 2016.

Visitors to U.S. rural food banks declined in June, likely due to federal aid such as stimulus payments to all Americans, expanded federal unemployment benefits for laid-off workers and the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.

By mid-August, aid ran dry and families again faced empty cupboards as COVID-19 cases increased in the Midwest. Rising crop and livestock prices bled into grocery stores. The cost of bread jumped nearly 20% in June, while meat increased 17%, according to market research firm Nielsen.

LIMITED REACH

Much of the federal aid to farmers, however, is not reaching many agricultural workers, as the program does not stipulate protection for farm employees, said Diana Tellefson-Torres, executive director of the UFW Foundation, a farm worker advocacy arm of the United Farm Workers Union.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said CFAP is meant to keep food on Americans' tables and the program is limited to $250,000 per farm owner.

"Larger farmers in the United States produce 80% of the food. That’s why the money goes there," added Perdue, who spoke while visiting a dairy farm in Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, in October.

The Trump administration and U.S. lawmakers have been unable to agree on additional stimulus. The agriculture department has distributed 9.5 million food boxes since June under a program meant to funnel food quickly to those who need it, but food pantry workers say it will not be enough.

MAKING ENDS MEET

In Elkhorn, a town of 10,000 in southeastern Wisconsin, 30 cars stretched down the block to the Walworth County Food Bank in early October, a half hour before opening.

By day's end, more than 100 families picked up food, including Matt Hausner, a local grocery store employee.

"I’ve still been working full-time, but it doesn’t make all the ends meet," he said. "Every couple months, I find myself having to come here."

Hausner, who does not plan to vote, said the grocery store is busier than normal after the pandemic closed restaurants and drove Americans to stockpile groceries. But he has not seen a pay raise.

Weekly survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau and an annual study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that hunger is rising, particularly in rural states, after a decade of decline. By late September, Vermont, West Virginia and North Dakota topped the Bureau's list, with a more than 50% increase in respondents saying they lacked enough to eat.

"The underlying issues that always made rural hunger a problem have been exacerbated with COVID," said Tracy Fox, president of Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants LLC, an advocacy and policy research organization, citing transportation, families taking in relatives and lack of affordable housing.

Austin Wall, co-owner of L & W Farms, received just $10 from the first round of the USDA's direct payments, the smallest amount in the state. Wall, 24, farms more than 200 acres of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, hay and apples in northeastern Wisconsin's Shawano county.

"That didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me," said Wall, who estimates selling 25-30% fewer apples to local schools and restaurants during the pandemic. After voting for Trump in 2016, Wall said he is undecided in this election.

The farm received $6,600 in the second round of CFAP payments which started on Sept. 21. The aid will cover expenses for a few months, but Wall said he is facing more losses as winter farmers' markets, normally held indoors, close.

"That’s going to hurt us a good amount. I’m not sure what we're going to do," he said.

(Reporting by Christopher Walljasper in Elkhorn, Wis., and Gabriela Bhaskar in Green Bay, Wis. Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Matthew Lewis)

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