Coronavirus pandemic: USDA program supplies food banks, creates jobs in SoCal

INGLEWOOD, Calif. (KABC) -- Just two months ago, Jennifer Dorantes lost her job as a dental assistant because of the coronavirus emergency. But, she quickly went from filling crowns to quality control at the Inglewood food manufacturer Don Lee Farms.

"Temperature has to be good, weight has to be good, everything has to be perfect. The food needs to be in good quality in order for us to send it out," said Dorantes, who has been working at Don Lee Farms for less than two months.

With so many in Southern California out of work, demand at food banks has skyrocketed, up 80 percent at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank alone. A shortage of food hasn't been the problem, but rather a disrupted supply chain.

"The whole market has shifted as we know. Restaurants closed. Retail went up and processors need to re-tool in a quick manner which wasn't always possible as demands shifted so drastically. With department of agriculture stepping in, they got the food flowing again to people that really need it," said Donald Goodman, president of Don Lee Farms.

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Thanks to the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress, the Department of Agriculture was granted $3 billion dollars for its Farmers to Families Food Box Program, paying farmers for their surplus food and distributing it to food banks.

Don Lee Farms is one of companies awarded a multi-million dollar contract by the USDA to produce 20 pound boxes of food and they're feeding 1 million people a day. The program has led to jobs for people like Haxel Melgar, who was laid off from a Beverly Hills restaurant because of the pandemic.

"I'm up for anything. Turns out it does good because I'm actually helping other people out. I know I'm making a difference providing people with food during this crisis," said Haxel Melgar, a new employee at Don Lee Farms.

"The doors actually closed at their last job, that doesn't mean that's going to stop you. You have to keep on working hard and it doesn't matter if it's not in the same environment," said Dorantes.

"I'm so happy that we're able to hire employees that have been displaced during this time. We're an essential workplace. The food supply is essential. They know they're coming into a safe work environment and they're able to get a job they wouldn't normally have and a job for a good purpose.," said Goodman.

The contracts currently run through June 30, and the USDA may elect to extend them depending on funding. A second relief package could also be a way to extend the Farmers to families Food Box Program if congress goes that route.

For more information on how to find a job in the food manufacturing industry in Southern California, visit priorityworkforce.com.
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