Between May and October for about 15 years Del Norters could get free zucchini, cabbage, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables on a first-come first-served basis.

But due to national efforts to help farmers weather the impact of international trade, Rural Human Services has had to cancel a program that Food & Family Director Ron Phillips says serves an average of about 225 families a month.

The nonprofit will continue to distribute fresh food to those in need, Phillips says. However, those items will appear in the monthly U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities boxes distributed through the RHS food bank program.

"We try to add fresh vegetables every month to our commodities box," Phillips said Monday, adding this month those receiving USDA commodities will find fresh apples, red onions and potatoes in their boxes. "What it doesn't do is give people a chance to get packages of salad and strawberries and zucchini and those kinds of things that we used to get."

RHS's termination of its tailgate program, which was held at the Del Norte County Fairgrounds and was available to anyone regardless of income, is a result of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program aimed at assisting farmers suffering from damage "due to unjustified trade retaliation by foreign nations."

Through this trade mitigation program, launched in September 2018, the USDA has purchased additional food from farmers needing the support, adding it to The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which supplements the diet of low-income Americans, according to John Healy, CEO of California Emergency Foodlink, which serves roughly 51 food banks statewide including RHS.

Nearly double the amount of food has come into the state through The Emergency Food Assistance Program as a result, Healy said. This makes it difficult for Foodlink to administer another initiative, its Donate Don't Dump Program, he said.

Through the Donate Don't Dump Program, Foodlink distributed fresh perishable foods donated by large agricultural producers and other industry players to tailgate programs statewide.

But in a letter to RHS and other food banks, Healy said the glut of food available through The Emergency Food Assistance Program as a result of the USDA's Trade Mitigation Program prohibits Foodlink from continuing the Donate Don't Dump Program.

"This means that we will be unable to accommodate the rural and remote food bank tailgate distributions of fresh and perishable food as all of our resources need to be directed to the delivery of USDA product," Healy writes. "This decision made in consultation with the Food Distribution Unit of the Department of Social Services was not made lightly. There is only so much money to cover the cost of Foodlink's operations."

The excess food has stressed Foodlink's ability to ship it to California's rural and remote areas, Healy told the Triplicate on Tuesday. Distance costs money. Plus, he said, much of the food is frozen and there's only so much freezer capacity.

Healy said Foodlink will try to bring the Donate Don't Dump program back. He was expected to meet with a farmer based in the Sacramento area, one of the organization's largest donors, and noted once you turn a donation down, it can be years before you get them back.

"It is in no way our intent to permanently end it," Healy said of the Donate Don't Dump Program. "It may just be that, if we have to end it, it's probably going to be for the couple of years that the (Trump) Administration is having the trade battles with other countries and I think after that we'll go back to normal."

Healy also noted Congress has authorized about $100 million for the administration and distribution of items in The Emergency Food Assistance Program through its 2018 Farm Bill. But over the last several years only about half of what Congress annually authorizes actually goes into the program nationwide, he said.

"It's been the same the last several years," Healy said. "Meanwhile insurance goes up, diesel and gasoline goes up, utilities. Food banks are trying to do the same thing with the same money year after year when costs have just plain gone up."

Phillips said he wanted to get the word out that RHS would no longer be holding its tailgate program since people were already calling the fairgrounds asking about it.

"We at RHS apologize for the inconvenience and hope to find another way to provide fresh food to those in need," Phillips said in a letter to the community.

RHS holds monthly food bank distributions in Klamath, Smith River and at various locations in Crescent City as well as its office at 286 M Street. For more information, call 707-464-7441.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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