When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, demand for dairy products shifted as schools, restaurants, and other institutions closed. With around 30-40% of dairy products typically going to these markets, suppliers were left with a massive surplus and no changes in the supply chain to redivert the goods, raising the prospect of financial hardship for farmers.
In response, UConn Extension educators and students with the UConn Extension Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), UConn 4-H members, and volunteers last year launched Operation Community Impact, which not only benefits dairy farmers, but helps prevent food waste while feeding those in need.
Under the program, surplus dairy products are rerouted to food pantries in Litchfield County, Fairfield County, Hartford County, New London County, Tolland County, and Windham County, providing food to nearly 100 food pantries which serve over 10,000 families in 57 towns, all while keeping those dairy products from going to waste. The federal Milk Donation Reimbursement Program allows dairy producers to be reimbursed for up to two-thirds the price of donated milk – less than what they’d normally make, but much better than being forced to dump the products at a total loss, which happened across the U.S. in the early months of the pandemic.
In all, Operation Community Impact has seen a total of 23 distribution events from April 2020 to now, recently surpassing a milestone of over 220,000 pounds of fluid milk and other dairy products delivered to families in need.
Extension educator and Litchfield County 4-H coordinator Bill Davenport ’86 (CAHNR) spearheaded Operation Community Impact.
“It is really rewarding, especially for the 4-H students to see the impact directly for those in need,” says Davenport.
The original effort required the coordination of around 30 volunteers to help connect food producers – including the Dairy Farmers of America, H.P. Hood, Guida’s, Agri-Mark Cooperative, and Cabot – with food pantries. Local businesses have also helped by donating the use of refrigerated trucks and their time to help with deliveries. The entire operation needs careful coordination because the dairy products have to be in the hands of the consumer within 45 minutes after leaving the refrigerated truck.
Davenport says fresh milk tends to be one of the most sought-after items for food pantries, but owing to the need to deliver it quickly, it is one of the most difficult items to provide. Operation Community Impact helped address that dilemma.
“At the distributions, we have volunteers and 4-H students lined up with their marching orders, each ready to deliver the milk to a specific food pantry,” he says. “By doing this, these 4-H members and volunteers have solved the biggest hurdle of getting the milk out to pantries quickly which otherwise would not be possible due to the fact that milk is perishable and needs refrigeration, something food pantries can’t handle.”
After the initial state-wide efforts in 2020, Litchfield County UConn 4-H has continued their efforts in supplying milk to 28 pantries and over 1,400 families in Litchfield County alone. The Litchfield Community Center had created the Litchfield County Dairy Fund to receive donations from the community, which has helped this project continue beyond the initial milk surplus donations and has kept the milk flowing to those families in need.
The effort continues to serve as a great platform for teaching wide-ranging lessons from the inner workings of the food system, to helping volunteers connect with the community, all foundational in the 4-H mission as well as for Land Grant universities like UConn, says Davenport.
“Operation Community Impact was one of six exemplary community outreach programs featured at the National 4-H Agriscience Summit in March of 2021,” he says. “Being selected as one of the best programs in the country was really rewarding for our 4-H members who have made this happen. We made a video and our hope is that people can watch and see the impact, and hopefully encourage them to do something also. We hope that nationally, other kids and communities see the idea and they can replicate it anywhere really.”
You can help keep this project going by making a donation, please go to: https://thecommunitycenter.org/donate.php and click on “Litchfield County Dairy Fund.”