FORT HALL — A local religious leader and a group of volunteers gave away nearly 40,000 pounds of food to residents of the Fort Hall Reservation on Monday.
Ross Hugues, the president of the Pocatello-Tyhee Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said this was the first of at least three planned meal giveaways, all of which will be hosted in the parking lot of the LDS chapel along U.S. 91 between West Tyhee and West Reservation roads.
“This is an opportunity to help a part of the community that’s in need,” Hugues said. “This program is called the Farmers to Families Food Box Program and is part of the USDA’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act. They provide these foodstuffs to families, specifically to Native American families and have used it a lot in the Southwest U.S. within the communities there.”
The Farmers to Family Food Box program involves distributors packaging food items into family-sized boxes before transporting them to food banks, community and faith-based organizations and other nonprofits serving Americans in need.
From noon to 6:30 p.m. Monday, the team of volunteers distributed about 1,300 boxes of food weighing approximately 30 pounds each.
“These boxes are packed full,” Hugues said. “We have about 1,300 boxes that come with 30 pounds of food ranging from fresh produce, meat, dairy, yogurt and eggs. There is enough in each box to provide a family of six with two large, healthy meals with some leftovers.”
Hugues also said it was a bit of a mad dash to get all the logistics sorted for Monday’s distribution considering the USDA announced this latest round on Jan. 19. The local LDS chapter didn’t know it was an approved distributor until Thursday last week, Hugues said.
“We have been on the phone with other elders and different contacts to organize the help for today,” Hugues said. “I then contacted Randy’L Teton from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes to help spread the word and it’s been nonstop since.”
In total, USDA has distributed more than 133 million food boxes in support of American farmers and families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hugues said all of those distributing food were requested to wear masks, and the event used a drive-by delivery method that did not require recipients to get out of their vehicle.
“When they drive up, windows are cracked just enough for some brief communication,” Hugues said. “Then we just load up the boxes and send them on their way.”
Teton described the collaborative effort from the LDS church and the Tribes as amazing, and one that showcases how much good can come when neighbors rely on one another.
“I think this is a great time during the pandemic to rely on each other, to rely on our neighbors,” Teton said. “The partnership between the church and the Tribes and to offer this to all Native Americans is amazing. What’s great about this program is that it isn’t just about the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, it benefits everyone on the reservation and there are other tribes who live and work here. Being able to offer this help to all people on the Tribe is great.”
Teton called the COVID-19 situation on the reservation alarming, adding that food distribution programs like this are especially helpful to locals who are having a hard time living within a budget but don’t consider themselves to be the target clientele of food banks.
“The Tribe is 6,000 people strong and we have actually had a pretty alarming number of COVID-19 deaths with 17,” Teton said. “We do track that weekly and just during the Christmas holidays we actually had four deaths. This has really impacted our community because three of them were elders, which are basically walking libraries who are gone. What’s worse is we can’t host a funeral or ceremony and do the things we are used to doing to cope.”
Teton continued, “This COVID-19 virus has really turned our community upside down. But just like every other community we are learning to adjust and are very thankful for something like this. Even people that are working families can use some help sometimes. Being able to get free food definitely helps every household out.”
Recently, a total of 33 Air and Army Guardsmen have been assisting the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, doing mobile testing, helping with clinics, helping with food distribution and assisting with contact tracing and data gathering.
When news that the LDS church was going to give away free food to Native Americans living in Fort Hall was announced this past weekend, there were several negative comments posted on social media that the food wasn’t being given away to everybody.
Hugues described these comments or reactions as very shortsighted.
“This program is directed toward our Native American neighbors but this distribution helping a particular sub-group of families in turn frees up resources that would have otherwise been used,” Hugues said. “Those unused resources then can be used on other groups within our community who aren’t Native American. The benefits just roll on and on. The idea that this goes to waste doesn’t make any sense. If anything, this should help us understand that we are one community — that COVID-19 doesn’t care about boundary lines or the color of our skin. We are all in this together. If one group benefits, it is not hurting another group, instead it opens up other benefit streams.
Monday’s distribution was the first of at least three similar giveaways, Hugues said. The next scheduled distribution is set for Thursday from noon until 5 p.m. Another delivery is scheduled for Feb 1.
“From there we will evaluate and see how many trucks we will need for the next five or six weeks or until we have determined that we have met the local need,” Hugues said. “But to see these two communities come together for the benefit of each other is super exciting and very special to me. This is fantastic and we’re just getting started, it will only keep rolling from here.”