Implementation of a Cooperative Extension Food Distribution Action Plan During Times of Crisis

Cooperative Extension Service Agents can utilize a Food Distribution Action Plan to facilitate food and supply distributions in the aftermath of hurricanes, flooding, and other disasters that may result in supply chain interruptions or overly abundant yields for farmers.  With support from the Clemson University Department of Public Health Science faculty in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, Clemson University’s Rural Health and Nutrition Extension Agents developed and implemented a plan for hosting food distributions with community partners, including food banks, food pantries, gleaning operations, and local food hubs.

Background: Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP)

The food supply chain can be divided into five steps, including (1) agricultural production, (2) postharvest handling/ transportation, (3) processing, (4) distribution through retail or service organizations, and (5) consumption.1 The steps in a supply chain are strongly connected, and a delay at one stage can trigger a shortage or back-up at other stages of the process. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the yield from production was adequate; however, business closures to minimize the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the loss of traditional markets for sales and distribution like restaurants, schools, and further processing operations. Additionally, the labor force was heavily impacted due to employee shortages caused by employee health issues, lay-offs, and safety protocols that were implemented and temporarily limited the number of on-site employees in some facilities. The result was a supply chain bottleneck and a surplus of commodities like milk and fresh produce.2 To alleviate the unexpected surplus, the United States Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020.3 Passage of the CARES Act led to development and funding for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).4

The USDA allocated CFAP funding to ease the economic losses producers were experiencing in the United States during COVID-19 closures.5 The USDA partnered with regional, state, and local food distributors and wholesalers to achieve the program’s purpose of alleviating the surplus while maintaining the food system economy. With CFAP funds, food distributors and wholesalers contributed $300 million per month to the economy by purchasing fruits and vegetables, dairy, and meat products from farm and ranch operations.6 Additionally, a portion of the surplus was allocated to food banks as produce food boxes. Food banks partnered with local distributors and grassroots community organizations who served as temporary food distribution centers to complete the supply chain and provide food to Americans in need. To make this process easy and effective, Clemson University Cooperative Extension Rural Health and Nutrition Agents developed and implemented a Food Distribution Action Plan that provides step-by-step instructions for community organizations serving as temporary food distribution centers during times of crisis.

The Food Distribution Action Plan focuses on the rapid distribution of perishable food using temporary distribution centers while protecting the health and safety of volunteers and clients. Churches, restaurants, schools, community centers, small enclosed markets, and other organizations or businesses that are not functioning because of closures can serve as temporary distribution centers. These centers serve as localized places for residents to retrieve rations of food during times of need. Food stock can come from various sources, including local food producers, packers, distributors, wholesalers, and retail markets who are managing their stock because of overproduction, inventory control, packaging errors, changes in product formulas, and items approaching a sell-by date. Additionally, stock such as fresh produce, which requires a short turnaround time, can be packaged into food boxes from local food banks and food hubs.

The Food Distribution Action Plan

The plan content details pre-distribution planning beginning one month out, distribution day setup and volunteers, and food box delivery and distribution.

Pre-distribution Planning

Planning for the distribution is a critical step to ensure a successful distribution. Promotion and coordination with other organizations and law enforcement are necessary to ensure smooth operations.

Three to Four Weeks Prior to Event

Secure an appropriate event location with critical space considerations.

  • The delivery area is large enough for delivery trucks to drop off boxes or pallets.
  • Traffic flow setup between entry and exit drives keeps car lines from backing up into public access roads.

Develop a promotions plan.

  • Promote the food distribution event with flyers, social media, and local radio.
  • Choose media sources that target the local community.
  • Consider non-traditional methods of promotion such as church bulletins and pinboards at libraries and other community and social resource organizations.
  • Provide detailed event information, including the sponsor’s name, the distribution time and location, directions to the distribution location, and a contact name and number for pre-event questions.

Recruit volunteers.

  • Recruit eight to twelve volunteers.
  • Start recruitment within the organization and expand to external networks.
  • Contact external groups such as student organizations, civic organizations, and local leaders.

Two to Three Weeks Prior to Event

Place an order for fresh produce boxes with the partnering food banks.

  • Estimate your number of attendees based on community history and previous events.
  • Coordinate bulk orders for other community organizations such as faith-based congregations and community centers and confirm organization representatives will be available to pick up larger orders on the distribution day.

Create and print recipe cards and pages.

  • Identify individuals to research recipes, such as your local librarian or Extension Agent.
  • Refer to the items in the food boxes and compile healthy recipes approved or published by professional health and wellness organizations like the American Heart Association.
  • When searching for recipes, take into consideration that not all patrons may have cooking equipment or supplies.
  • Include both fresh and cooked recipe options.
  • Print the recipe on cards and add cards to food boxes on the distribution day.

One to Two Weeks Prior to Event

Prepare for distribution day weather.

  • Purchase items to ensure the comfort of volunteers or request volunteers bring apparel and items conducive to the weather (e.g., bottled water, sunblock).
  • Encourage volunteers to wear comfortable clothing, hats, and closed-toed shoes.

Identify large quantity requests.

  • Coordinate a separate pick-up area if an organization, church, or group requests more than ten boxes.

Contact and coordinate with local law enforcement.

  • Law enforcement should be made aware typical traffic patterns could be impacted.
  • Law enforcement can help oversee traffic flow during the distribution hours.

Distribution Day Setup

Directing Traffic

Volunteers should assist with designing a one-way traffic system. If possible, use safety cones to help with traffic guidance. If safety cones are available, use one to two volunteers to guide the vehicles through the line. Encourage volunteers to wear reflective vests for visibility.

Tables, Signs, Tents, and Cones

Set up multiple tables in close proximity to vehicle pick-up lines to increase efficiency.

Delivery Truck Parking

Delivery truck parking should be located in the most convenient area for unloading the boxes.

Delivery Truck Unloading

Unload as many boxes as possible on the tables, and set aside any large quantity or bulk request orders immediately.

Distribution Day Volunteers

An organized volunteer group will help ensure distribution days run more smoothly.

Preparing Volunteers

  • Volunteers should arrive one to two hours before the delivery truck is due to arrive.
  • Volunteer orientation should take place one hour before the designated distribution time.
  • Assign volunteers to roles upon their arrival (some volunteers may have multiple jobs).
  • Include food safety information (e.g., handwashing, sanitizing surfaces, safe food storage/handling).7,8
  • Discuss the physical demands of the distribution (e.g., box weights).
  • Distribute gloves and masks for volunteer safety.
  • Encourage volunteers to load boxes in the trunk or backseat of vehicles to limit close contact.7

Distribution Day Volunteer Roles

Traffic Director(s)

  • Guides vehicles through the pick-up line.
  • Organizes safety cones, if available, in strategic areas to show where vehicles enter the line, stop to receive their box and exit.
  • Unloads produce from the delivery truck (if able-bodied).

Bulk Order Coordinator for Partnering Organizations (e.g., faith-based and community centers)

  • Is well-versed in helping clients.
  • Ensures bulk orders are accounted for.
  • Greets representatives, directs them to their order, and assists with loading boxes into vehicles.

Food Box Distributors

  • Separate the volunteers into two or three distributor groups.
  • Volunteers will ask for the number of people in a household to determine how many 10-pound produce boxes should be provided (table 1).

Table 1. Recommended number of boxes for families based on household size.

Number of People in the Household Number of Boxes
1–4 people 1 10-lb box
5–8 people 2 10-lb boxes
9+ people 3 10-lb boxes

Case Study: Implementation of the Food Distribution Action Plan in Hampton County

A woman pulling a cart of food boxes towards a car in a parking lot.

Figure 1. Distribution Day at Hampton United Methodist Church. Image Credit: Michelle Altman, Clemson Extension Service.

Food Distribution Action Plans helped to orchestrate fourteen distributions in Hampton County between July 2020 and September 2020. A regional food bank partnered with a local producer to supply boxes with twelve to fifteen pieces of produce to two faith-based organizations for distribution. One of these organizations has an association of twelve churches and created a centralized food distribution hub to expand the reach and improve coordination of efforts across the county. A ‘hub church’ was identified, and its leaders actively engaged the other church leaders to promote the food distribution day amongst their congregations. Their Food Distribution Action Plan efficiently facilitated the delivery of multiple bulk orders to the hub church location. The other eleven churches were then able to retrieve their congregation orders from a centralized location. The ripple effect of a coordinated distribution resulted in a greater number of community members being served. An estimated 10,000 pounds of fresh produce was provided to 500 families over the course of three months in rural South Carolina. The success of the Food Distribution Action Plan during the pandemic has encouraged local organizations in Hampton County to consider permanent, sustainable food distribution operations that will bring new, healthy food access points to the community.

Implications and Sustainability

Cooperative Extension Agents can guide communities in developing Food Distribution Action Plans to provide local and surplus food and supplies to residents in a coordinated and efficient manner during times of crisis. With strong community partnerships, Plans can expand the success of temporary food distribution centers to prospects of permanent food pantries and local food hubs to establish healthy food access points that ensure ongoing food security.


This project was funded in part by a Center for Disease Control High Obesity Prevention Grant in cooperation with Clemson University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences.

References Cited

  1. Aday S, Aday MS. Impact of COVID-19 on the food supply chain. Food Quality and Safety. 2020 Dec. 4:4,167–180.
  2. Richards S. Opportunities for Specialty Crop Producers During COVID-19 Restaurant Recovery. Clemson (SC): Clemson Cooperative Extension, Land-Grant Press by Clemson Extension; 2020 Jun. LGP 1067.
  3. Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Washington (DC): US Department of Agriculture. [accessed 2021 Aug 27].
  4. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, H.R. 748, 116th (2020).
  5. Herrick M. USDA announces coronavirus food assistance program. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture; 2020 [accessed 2020 Apr 17].
  6. Ettlinger M, Hensley J. COVID-19 economic crisis: by state. Durham (NC): University of New Hampshire, Carsey School of Public Policy; 2020 Nov 20 [accessed 2020 Dec 3].
  7. Social Distancing. Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19; 2020 [accessed 2020 Jun 15].
  8. CDC. When and how to wash your hands. Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2020 [accessed 2020 Sep 1].

References Consulted

USAID From the American People. Leadership during a pandemic toolkit, what your municipality can do. Washington (DC): United States Agency for International Development; 2020.

Hoyle EH. Food safety in hurricanes and floods. Clemson (SC): Clemson Cooperative Extension, Home & Garden Information Center; 2007 [accessed 2021 June 15]. HGIC 3800.

Wills K. Implementing a client choice food pantry model. East Lansing (MI): Michigan State University Extension; 2017 [accessed 2020 May 1].

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