Central Illinois dairy farmers Ken Ropp and Matt Kilgus add their best products. John Rollins and Central Illinois Produce employees make and distribute boxes of dairy and fresh produce. Tara Ingham and the Midwest Food Bank provide those boxes to 470-plus food pantries, mostly in the eastern half of Illinois.

“This is such a blessing to those we serve,” Ingham, Midwest Food Pantry’s executive director, told FarmWeek.

The blessings of USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program are spreading across Illinois from farms to families in need.

For Ropp Jersey Cheese of Normal and Kilgus Farmstead of Fairbury, USDA food boxes provide needed markets. Both Ropp and Kilgus are working with Rollins, whose company adds their dairy products to family-sized boxes.

The Kilgus family dairy supplies milk, which is processed into yogurt elsewhere, and pints of heavy cream. Each week, the Kilgus family supplies an average of 2,000 pints of cream, about 50% of the farm production, and about 10% of milk production.

“From our perspective, this is a very nice program that has helped with market loss,” Kilgus said. “We have flexibility to send as much as we want or are able to.

“Since COVID-19 hit in March, week by week, we’ve been thinking, ’What can we do to move product this week?’” he continued. “This has been an excellent program to market the excess we’ve produced.”

To each box, Ropp adds two half-pound blocks of two types of cheese, a total of 40,000 blocks of cheese in two weeks. Compared to average month-to-month sales, the food box program has boosted business 300%, he estimated.

“That’s a lot of cheese that’s moving,” Ropp said.

The program has also been a workforce boost. The cheese business grew from five to 21 employees who work three, nearly around-the-clock shifts, starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 5 a.m.

“A lot of these (new) employees are coming from restaurants where they were laid off. We’re able to take them on,” Ropp said.

The dairy farmer also appreciated the number of people outside of central Illinois learning about his farm. “We’re getting great exposure,” Ropp said. “It’s been huge.”

Rollins, owner of Central Illinois Produce, and his employees build, assemble and distribute boxes of fresh produce and dairy products to food banks, including Midwest Food Bank, and other nonprofit organizations. His weekly goal is to distribute 18,500 boxes of fresh produce and dairy foods across central and southern Illinois. Recently, Rollins learned his participation in the program was extended through August.

“The dairy boxes have been well received,” Rollins said, adding those boxes also include Prairie Farms Dairy milk.

Early on the 20-pound fresh produce boxes contain lettuce, strawberries and “west coast kinds of produce” due to an earlier growing season, Rollins said. As he moves into July and August, the distributor said he hopes to add such local produce as peaches, zucchini, sweet corn and cantaloupe.

“There are lots of great growers growing lots of great produce,” Rollins noted.

Rollins’ employees are also benefitting from the food box program. When COVID-19 restrictions hit, he was forced to lay off 70 employees. With the extra work to make, assemble and distribute food boxes, Rollins was able to bring his workforce back up to 100, including temporary employees.

“I’m just happy making boxes. It’s a great feeling,” Rollins said. “For us, it’s giving people really high quality produce ... So many people were hired back and putting these boxes together. It is really, really having an impact.”

At Midwest Food Bank, Ingham has received emails about the food box program’s impact on families in need.

Each of the six Midwest Food Bank locations in the U.S. receives three to five semitruck loads of the family boxes weekly. On a weekly average, 2,000 families per location will receive the food.

Not only is the food box program is sharing “premium fresh products,” Ingham said, but “it’s meant a world of difference that is it already boxed” and helps reduce potential COVID-19 exposure because boxes can be loaded directly into family vehicles. The food bank also continues to box and distribute nonperishable items.

“We’re excited that we can be part of this program,” Ingham said.