My mother instilled in me how fortunate and blessed we were to have a home, a livelihood and abilities that allowed us to help those who had far less. It was an invaluable grounding that I have followed into my adult years.
The kids who lived with us thrived in the regimented schedule that comes with running a dairy farm, but there was one little boy I will never forget. He was about 8 years old and he seemed withdrawn and malnourished when he arrived. His hair had a grayish tint and he was very pale. He looked much older than any 8-year-old should, but after about a month of a steady diet of nutritious food, his appearance and demeanor changed. His red hair and freckles reappeared.
Little could I have imagined then how he and others like him would shape my life’s mission.
Transitioning the farm
I decided to follow in the family business and became a dairy farmer. Over time, I noticed my sons, Wyatt and Ethan, take an interest in running the dairy. From an economic standpoint, it would be difficult for three families to make a living off one farm. I also realized I had my fill of broken bones and stitches from farm accidents over the years and the boys are much faster, younger and stronger than me!
So, I stepped back from the front line and now proudly watch Wyatt, 26, and Ethan, 25, run the day-to-day operations while I focus on the bookwork. The move also allowed me to head back to college six years ago at 41.
My plan was to become a college professor, teaching sustainability with my farmer’s lens. Although, I soon realized this wasn’t the path for me. So, one night I searched on the internet for dairy jobs in Indiana and Kentucky and saw an opening at Feeding America.
I applied, got a phone interview and the rest – as they say – is history. For the last three years, I have seen the face of hunger up close, yet I remain so motivated by our team’s ability to do what we can to lessen food insecurity. Each day, I follow another of my mother’s adages: sharing food is caring for people.
I won’t replay the last 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on our country and our dairy industry. What we experienced remains beyond the imagination.
For many, it shined a light on our country’s hunger crisis, something Feeding America has responded to for more than 40 years. According to the USDA’s latest Household Food Insecurity in the United States report, more than 35 million people faced hunger in 2019. Feeding America, however, projects that 42 million people, including 13 million children, may experience food insecurity in 2021. In addition, Feeding America estimates that between March and June 2020, roughly 4 in 10 individuals being served were new to charitable food assistance.
The coronavirus presented a perfect storm of increased demand, declines in food donations and disruptions to the charitable food assistance system. Yet, in the past year, the Feeding America network distributed 6.1 billion meals to families in need.
Beyond the food insecurity aspect, the dairy farmer side of me was heartbroken to see temporary dumping of milk occur because of unprecedented supply chain disruptions brought on by the sudden closings of schools, restaurants and other venues that usually rely on our products.
But, as is sometimes the case with tragedies, we also saw the good shine through, and our dairy community responded in a big way. Farmers, milk haulers, checkoff teams, cooperatives and retailers all pivoted to find creative ways to get dairy to people who needed it most. You saw just how talented and skilled our dairy community truly is.
The checkoff-founded Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy also created Dairy Nourishes America, a partnership between farmers, cooperatives, dairy companies and food banks that are committed to ambitious goals of increasing access to fresh dairy throughout Feeding America.
These efforts resulted in a year like no other since the start of Feeding America’s partnership with Dairy Management Inc. in 2012. Last year, 469 million pounds of milk, cheese and yogurt moved through the Feeding America nationwide network of 200 food banks. This is an increase of 110 million pounds from 2019.
Our work, however, is far from done. Dairy has long been one of the most requested yet least supplied food items by our partners. Refrigeration and product cost are key obstacles but there is a renewed focus and commitment to making dairy even more accessible. Feeding America has set an ambitious – yet, very achievable – goal of dairy accounting for 10 percent of all food distributed in our network.
The Innovation Center also created the Food Security Task Force which consists of representatives from leading retailers, cooperatives, processors and Feeding America working in tandem to find more solutions for reliable access to nutritious dairy.
We will never eliminate hardship, but teamwork makes the dream work and combined efforts to solve hunger, such as those being led by the dairy industry, give me hope as a Feeding America employee. And as a dairy farmer.