There's no reason to cry over spilled milk at the River Bend Foodbank this season.
CEO Mike Miller said there's plenty of milk to go around — 80,000 half-gallons to be exact, which will be distributed at food pantries across the Quad-City region from now until March. The huge increase in donations is thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture program aimed at helping farmers hurt by the ongoing trade dispute and new tariffs on farm products.
The USDA announced in August it would buy up around $50 million worth of dairy from farmers struggling with low prices and a surplus of milk products. It's distributing the milk, which would have been sold overseas, to food banks and meal sites across the country.
The River Bend Foodbank in Davenport, the main supplier of food pantries in eastern Iowa and western Illinois, has been receiving a deluge of milk since last month, Miller said.
"It's certainly helpful to farmers who are hurt because tariffs are placed on their products going into China. And it's a huge help for hungry people in our community," he said. "But it has been challenging. Milk has a limited shelf life, so we have to move it quickly. We've got to move this week's milk because more milk will be coming next week."
Between now and March, the distribution site will receive 100 semi-truckloads of milk, he said, or around 5,000 half-gallons each week. While the donations are welcome, Miller said they've also brought challenges, including a lack of adequate storage and enough volunteers to distribute the massive supply.
Miller said the River Bend Foodbank is receiving milk from farmers throughout the region. It's being distributed through Illinois and Iowa.
John Maxwell, owner of Donahue's Cinnamon Ridge Farms who will join the Scott County Board of Supervisors in January, said dairy farmers are struggling to break even due to the tariffs.
"We sell milk by hundredweight, and typically the base is around $14 or $15. But, it's gotten as low as $13," Maxwell said. "Breaking even for most dairymen is in the upper teens, $17 or $18. So it's been challenging. Especially when you've got a lot of cows and you're losing money by the thousands each month."
In Iowa, Maxwell said there's been a "pretty major shake-down" in the dairy industry, with dairies going out of business, cattle being sold and farms unable to expand.
Maxwell said he's trying to remain optimistic — a rare attitude in the industry today, he added. He hopes the new Farm Bill, signed by President Trump this past week, and new trade negotiations could improve farmers' situations.
"Overall, we want what's fair. But for us, having 'fair' be at this cost is a challenge," he said. "If we look at this two or three months from now and we have good prices because we were willing to say to China, Canada and Mexico that this is not a fair deal, then I'd say it's worth it. We're hoping it's worth holding out for."
He added that the government buying up milk products is needed temporary assistance for local farmers.
And, for Miller, the milk donations are crucial to feeding hungry people throughout the 23 counties the River Bend Foodbank serves.
"Some areas of the country have had to decline these donations because it's too much to handle and milk is not usually donated," Miller said. "Our team just refused to say ‘no’ because it's good for hungry families. In our community, one in eight people don't have enough food, and one in five kids go hungry. That's about 120,000 people in the 23 counties we serve."
The USDA is sending donations in phases. The first round, all milk, will continue until March. Then another phase and another round of challenges will begin, Miller said.
"With the first round of trade negation, the government just gave us the food and nothing to cover expenses. So I was concerned about that," he said. "I was encouraging the public to reach out to representatives and influence the situation. Fortunately, with the second round, they are going to provide funding to cover those expenses. So we're excited about Round 2."
He expects the next donations to include a wider variety of food products, such as poultry, pork or rice. Miller said River Bend Foodbank is asking for donations to help with distribution costs, plus additional volunteers in January and February.
"We're certainly thankful for this opportunity, and I'm really proud of my team," Miller said. "Even though there is some pressure and it's a lot of work, nobody has said 'no.' If we have this opportunity to help hungry people, we're going to step up to the plate and get it done. That's the spirit of River Bend Foodbank and the spirit of our entire community. I'm proud of that."