Rep. Dow, Ranchers and Ag Department Assisting Navajos and Food Banks During Looming Food Shortages and Pandemic

Rep. Dow, Ranchers and Ag Department Assisting Navajos and Food Banks During Looming Food Shortages and Pandemic

By Etta Pettijohn

An idea initiated during a zoom conference call has led New Mexico food producers to step up to the plate for New Mexico’s most vulnerable residents facing food insecurity during the COVID 19 pandemic.

Their efforts could also provide the catalyst for adoption of legislation providing relief to struggling meat producers who are being squeezed out of the market by low cattle prices, and regulations prohibiting them from selling their products in the state.

One of New Mexico Rep. Rebecca Dow’s (R-38) priorities since her 2017 election has been to address food insecurity in the state that leads the nation in child hunger, beginning with her advocacy for the senior meal programs in her district. In 2018 she and other House members formed a Hunger Caucus, which became the Council on Hunger. 

It was during that recent conference call -- which included members of the Roadrunner Food Bank (RRFB) -- that the ramifications this pandemic will have on her state became evident to her.  

“We gathered that 80,000 pounds of food in two or three hours. These ag producers are true heroes. They are operating, staying healthy, social distancing and making it work,” said Witte.

The country’s largest meatpacking plants --responsible for 10 percent of the nation’s beef processing and 25 percent of pork processing --have shut down or cut back operations amid the coronavirus pandemic, which is causing supply problems. 

“My efforts have been to get New Mexico meat to the state’s consumers,” said Dow. “While on that call I heard a RRFB representative mention a shortage in the supply chain and rising prices of the food they buy with donations, like a tuna company asking for $3 for a can. 

“I’m a rural representative who knew my ranchers were being squeezed by out of state packers,” said Dow. “I recognized the opportunity to meet two needs.

“I emailed the RRFB CEO to see if she would be interested in purchasing New Mexico beef. She said yes, so I sent her the contact for a half dozen ranchers I knew that had beef to sell. Since then the networking has taken off, and they are even trying to buy poultry and pork. 

“Isn’t it great that folks in need of help are eating organic New Mexico beef instead of canned mystery meat,” Dow said. 

“During this crisis I’ve felt helpless to assist my community, and those in greatest need. This is a small win for one of my district’s biggest industries, as well as for the food banks and pantries.”  

SUPPLY CHAIN ISSUES

One of five food banks operating in the state, RRFB serves 16 counties, including Grant and Sierra counties in Dow’s district. According to Communications Director Sonya Warwick, it delivers tractor trailer loads of food to partner agencies, including food pantries, soup kitchens, group homes, shelters, senior centers, schools,and even some healthcare sites.

Warwick said the RRFB has an emergency budget set aside for food purchases to complement donations and federal commodities. 

“We’re seeing delays in getting some products,” she said. “We were told that due to the pandemic, we can expect food orders we place today to not arrive in our warehouse until June, and it could take several weeks to get it sent out to partners across the state. We are trying to keep inventory levels consistent, and anticipate the long-term ramifications, not knowing how long people will stay unemployed and/or how businesses will recover.”

Warwick said RRFB saw a 400 percent increase of usage of its website by the second week of the pandemic, and are witnessing long lines, and new people recently unemployed, at distributions. The RRFB has purchased nine whole beef, with eight of them coming from a Deming rancher, and is looking to buy pork and poultry. 

INSPECTION HURDLES

Agriculture Director/Secretary Jeff Witte said about 12 years ago the state livestock board stopped inspecting packing facilities, so food headed to retail and wholesale markets have to be USDA inspected.

“There’s about 25 or so custom processors in the state, where an individual can take an animal and have it processed to personal specification and not for sale to public,” he said.

“When the law allowing state inspections was repealed most plants converted from regulatory to custom processing. Only five or six small facilities statewide are USDA inspected, and people can take livestock to those facilities and have them processed if they want to enter the retail market or sell to food banks. The issue is most are very small, processing only one or two animals a day. The issue now is people want locally raised beef, but those facilities are backed up 40 to 60 days,” he said.

Witte said discussion is underway with custom facilities to see if they are interested in operating with either state inspection or federal inspection, and about six or seven are interested in coming online with some sort of inspection protocol. 

“We’re looking at rebuilding that capacity in-state, so our producers can market direct to a retailer or consumer.”

HEROIC EFFORTS FROM AG COMMUNITY

Several feedlot owners and ranchers have filed lawsuits alleging dominant meatpackers JBS, Tyson, Cargill, and National Beef conspired to depress cattle prices when they strategically cut back on open market cattle bids, closed plants, and imported foreign cattle, despite having “Made in America” labeling. 

Calling these moves “catastrophic,” for ranchers, they contend collusion among the meat packers “depressed [fed cattle prices] by an average of 7.9 percent since 2015, causing the price of cattle to drop more than 30 percent in 18 months. This is also alleged in other class-action suits against pork and poultry corporations. 

These four large packers slaughter more than 80 percent of all beef and pork in the country.

“The big four packers have cattle growers over the barrel. They can buy when they want and pay what they want,” said Dow. “More than 90 percent of the fine beef produced in New Mexico is consumed outside the state. The need for in-state processing isn’t new, but the Covid19 virus has created a unique opportunity to get local beef to state residents. The only barrier is our limited capacity to process in state. 

“I believe this crisis has elevated the need to change New Mexico laws so that forward, more New Mexico beef of consumed by our residents,” she said. "Consumer trends have changed. Now more than ever, people care about where their food comes from. I believe we have a real opportunity to provide every New Mexico household with beef grown in our state. It may happen through co-ops or cost sharing. Social media can also be an affordable way to connect buyers to sellers.

“I’ve reached out to the Sec of Ag, asking to help and ideas on potential legislation to address these issues, and to promote laws that are more friendly towards the cottage food industry. 

“I would also like to see a bill expanding farm to table to include senior meals sites and child care centers,” she said. 

Secretary Witte said in the short term, the department of agriculture, state emergency operations center, tribal liaisons and national guard are putting together lists of ranchers who have beef that go through a USDA inspected plant, and are connecting those with consumers or food banks for immediate needs.  

“This week we had about 10,000 pounds sold to RRFB. We have a big effort right now in the tribal communities to get food to tribal nations and pueblos so they can stay at home and recover from the virus (Navajo Nation now has 1,637 coronavirus cases, and 59 deaths, with more deaths reported than 13 states).   We delivered more than 80,000 pounds to them last week, including beans, rice, potatoes, produce and meat. 

“Agriculture is really stepping up. They are getting hit by price fluctuations, supply chain stress, and competition for feed. But at end of day agriculture is producing the food that America needs. 

“We gathered that 80,000 pounds of food in two or three hours. These ag producers are true heroes. They are operating, staying healthy, social distancing and making it work,” said Witte.

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