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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Whether sliced or shredded, if you’ve eaten cheese at a restaurant in Minnesota, there’s a good chance it was produced by Bongards.

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“We are owned by 350 family farms in Minnesota. Our average farm is probably a little over 100 dairy cattle,” Bongards Chief Revenue Officer Scott Tomes said.

He says 95% of Bongards’ cheese goes to the food service industry, a sector hit hard during the pandemic. Many restaurants closed or scaled back to only curbside and delivery due to stay-at-home orders across the country.

“I think at our worst plateau we were off anywhere from 30% all the way up to 70% to 80%,” Tomes said. “There is some relaxation [of stay-at-home orders] going on in the big states like Texas, Florida … and every week has gotten better and better for us.”

Luckily, cheese has a longer shelf life than other dairy products like milk, allowing Bongards to weather the storm. And now federal program is helping the company clear inventory while helping struggling families.

It’s one of dozens of suppliers awarded a contract through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program. The USDA plans to spend $3 billion, awarding contracts to over 100 food suppliers like Bongards. The companies will fill boxes with dairy, produce and meat products.

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“To be able to know that we’re helping out in this time during this need for people with our dairy products is very, very rewarding for the co-op,” Tomes said.

Through the end of June, Bongards will fill about 13,000 boxes a week with 10 pounds of cheeses, ranging from sliced American to mozzarella cheese sticks. It’ll then be distributed through the food bank Second Harvest Heartland.

“They have a huge network on how to get our kits out to the people,” Tomes said.

The federal program is split into four phases, each lasting six weeks. Bongards is part of the first phase and hopes get contracts for the next three, allowing it to keep churning out product during uncertain times.

“We’re a necessity for this,” Tomes said. “Our farmers have never stopped since day one.”

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Jeff Wagner