While officials say there was nothing else they could do, one long-time advocate is upset the public wasn’t informed in advance that the board of commissioners was considering ending the quarterly distribution of surplus government food.
Commissioner Paul Johnson, who made the motion to end the distribution program in the county, said the board was under a time crunch and the county faced losing half — or even all — of its allotment.
“We had to act fast to keep from losing all of this food because the Department of Agriculture would have given it all to the food bank, and if we’d continued to do the distribution we’d have been cut in half. The food banks would have gotten nothing because all the food from the Department of Agriculture would have been taken from the banks.”
Johnson said the county has been getting what amounts to a double allotment of surplus food because the food banks were receiving a portion and the county was also receiving an allocation.
“When the rules came down that we weren’t going to get two allotments for two different groups anymore we had to make a decision because they had us on a deadline of Sept. 30,” he said. “If we hadn’t acted when we did, our (remaining allocation) would have gone to other counties.”
But Lorene Jones, county coordinator of the U.S.D.A. commodities distribution program, said that’s just what she’s worried about.
With the food now being stored at Second Harvest Food Bank in Winston-Salem, Jones said she is worried about it making it to Surry County.
“My concern is that all of our allocation gets back to Surry County and actually gets in the hands of the people who need it,” she said. “I don’t know that our pantries have the resources and capabilities to (travel to Winston-Salem and pick up the food).”
Jones said she was “blindsided” by the board’s action.
“I had no clue,” she said. “I’ve been the coordinator of this program for 20 years, and I received a call Monday afternoon that the program was being discontinued and our allocation would go to the food bank. It would be up to the pantries to go and get the food in Winston-Salem and bring it back to Surry County for distribution.”
Arriving at the meeting, Jones said she noticed nothing was on the agenda about the issue.
“I thought if I spoke up in open forum and gave them the facts and figures, the board might delay action,” she said.
But Johnson said time was of the essence.
“To be honest, the deadline was there and we had to make a decision quick,” he said.
Asked why there wasn’t an advance notice to allow the public to comment, he said that between funding cuts and the new agriculture department rules, public comment wouldn’t have altered his motion to end the program.
“It wouldn’t have made any difference to me if 1,000 people had come and spoken out against it,” he said. “In my mind, I’m doing what’s right for the people who need the service. If we’d voted any other way, both Surry County and the people who need the food would have lost out. The way we did it, everyone wins.”
Johnson said he discussed the matter with representatives from the county’s food banks, the Department of Agriculture and the county Department of Social Services.
“I think the Board of Commissioners made the best possible decision to affect the greatest number of people in a good way,” he said. “I don’t think what we did in any way was bad for the people who need the service.”
Jones, on the other hand, isn’t so sure.
“If the food in fact gets here and gets to the people who need it, this could balance out,” she said. “But my concern is that 200 cars are going to show up at a food pantry and there will be no food. I just think this is not as effective as doing what we’ve been doing for years.
“There’s no question to me that (the commissioners) had their minds made up before the meeting,” she said. “This should have been on the agenda and people should have had the chance to voice their concerns. They absolutely knew what they were going to do before the meeting started.”
She suggested the board should reconsider its priorities.
“If the commissioners can spend $12 million to extend a runway at the airport, then they should be able to find a little money to feed the hungry.”
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.