As part of a relief effort, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) partnered with national, regional, and local businesses to implement the “Farmers to Families Food Box Program.” The goal was to purchase nearly $3 billion in produce, dairy, and meat products, package the products into boxes, then transport them to food banks, community organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need.

Though distributors of any size were encouraged to apply, the majority of those approved were large-scale food distributors and processors. But there was one supplier, a family farm in our corner of the world, also selected:

Coveyou Scenic Farm Market of Petoskey

Coveyou Farms is a working Michigan Centennial Farm operated by the same family for more than 140 years, providing Northern Michigan with fresh organic produce and artisan goods. David Coveyou said in an interview that he was one of the only farms in Michigan, and the Midwest, on the USDA’s list.

“USDA announced this program in April, with a simple application since the agency had never done this before. A week later they announced the recipients. We had very little time to get everything together,” he says, “and we needed a partner to help us.”

Despite the many unknowns, David was able to strategize and get the operation up and rolling in May, and Manna agreed to be his primary distributor.

In addition to produce from their own fields, Coveyou works with ten other local growers to supply the items—varying from carrots, cucumbers, and radishes to potatoes, peaches, and lettuce. Once the produce arrives, his workers prep it, sort it, and pack it into boxes. The boxes are stacked high onto wooden pallets and loaded into Manna’s refrigerated trucks. Manna then delivers them to partner agencies, supplying hundreds of boxes each day to families throughout Antrim, Charlevoix, and Emmet counties. “Produce can literally come in the morning it’s harvested and make its way onto dinner tables that same evening,” David explains.

When I visited Coveyou, eight young adults and high school students were working on the assembly line with Dave and his kids, including four-year-old Lillian. All the workers wore masks, most wore gloves and blue jeans. Music blasted in the background. The modern flow of productivity contrasted with the old beams of the barn, giving the place a new voice.

By the end of July, their team had already assembled over 12,000 boxes, and expected to hit the 15,000 mark by the time the contract is over later this summer. This feat is inspiring by itself—and then I remembered that they’re also still running their other business as usual, their farm market just a floor above. “On the whole, it’s worked out really well. But, quite honestly, it’s nothing like I envisioned.”

The program has been a huge experiment for Coveyou, testing how much they can innovate, and how creative and hardworking they can be. David says they’ve surpassed their own expectations. Gradual upgrades to their basement assembly area helped to streamline the process—especially by adding a long roller table for the line, walk-in coolers, and new lighting.

How fast can they go? I learned their top speed is just under 500 boxes an hour. “The prep takes the most time: the washing lettuce, the shuffling, and getting everything ready is actually more time-consuming than packing boxes,” says David. “It takes a couple hours just to get set up in the morning.”

Days are long, with the field hands starting at 7 a.m. and heading home at 6 p.m. or later. David works right alongside them: packing, sorting, lifting, counting.
And then we play our part. Manna trucks average 4,000 miles per month, delivering to Mancelona and Central Lake, up through Charlevoix and East Jordan, and all the way to Alanson and Pellston. The Salvation Army receives 130 boxes for their clients each Monday, while the Friendship Center gets 100 for their seniors on Wednesdays.

Even Boyne City, Pellston, and Petoskey schools are on Manna’s delivery schedule. “This concept is so new, but so, so wonderful,” says Beth Kavanaugh, Food Service Director for Petoskey Public Schools. “It’s meeting a huge need we didn’t even know we had.”
David has received thank-you letters from elderly residents, who saw his logo on the outside of the boxes and looked up his address. He’s received phone calls as well, including from some parents who received boxes from the schools. Another story I heard was about a woman who, due to health issues, no longer could have a garden of her own. When she opened her first box, she burst into tears and told the director at a partner food pantry, “I have missed this so much.”

“People are not just getting a box: they’re getting a positive experience out of it. It’s those stories that really make all the difference to me,” David says.

Jessyca Stoepker | August 31, 2020