With little fanfare, a group distributed free boxes of food in Backus and Pequot Lakes on Nov. 21. A second food box distribution will take place Saturday, Dec. 19, in the Pequot Lakes Middle School parking lot on a first-come, first-served basis and available to anyone.

Locally, distribution was organized by Bruce Rauma, pastor at Legacy Church in Pequot Lakes along with other volunteers. The group's first large distribution had little more than Facebook posts and word of mouth to attract families to pick up nutritious boxes of food, but plenty of recipients still lined up.

"In November, pre-Thanksgiving, we distributed 931 boxes between Pequot Lakes and Backus," Rauma said.

That included 300 boxes distributed in Backus and 631 in Pequot Lakes.

The effort is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers to Families Food Box program. The program was unveiled in April when the USDA created a program to prevent food waste. A USDA spokesperson explained over the phone that the food had been originally bound for restaurants and dining establishments, but with shutdowns and restrictions in many states, those businesses no longer needed that food.

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The program simultaneously provides food to families, prevents waste and provides financial relief to providers.

"It's surplus food from the closure of restaurants, hotels and food service entities," the spokesperson said. "It was purchased by distributors, then packaged into boxes for delivery to different nonprofits all across the country."

The funding for the food came from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act under the USDA Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. Food has been distributed in three rounds so far with funding left for one final round.

Each round had a different distribution amount. The FFCRA initially provided $3 billion for the program (and $13 billion to go directly toward farmers), then an additional $1 billion before the CARES Act provided $500 million in the fall for an additional distribution.

"All the funding did come from emergency declarations and the FFCRA and CARES Act," the USDA spokesperson said. "We're in the last round of that $500 million extension, and we anticipate deliveries will conclude by Dec. 31."

The local group had a small distribution at the end of October organized on short notice with fewer boxes as a result (only 200 boxes, half of them paid for by the church). However, the group then participated in the third round, distributing from the Pequot Lakes School parking lot and Foothills Christian Academy in Backus.

The group will participate in the fourth round with distribution only taking place in the parking lot of the Pequot Lakes School. Rauma said the group was anticipating another 960 boxes, all of it basic and nutritious.

"There's various meats, potatoes, carrots and very much essential food," Rauma said. "There's some fresh fruit and yogurt and a bit of everything essential. There wasn't a lot of snack type foods."

Food items vary from distribution to distribution and box to box. Meats, for example, included chicken patties in October and hot dogs and sausages in November.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.