Every other month, Dick Huffman drives his Chevy crew cab and Cargo Mate trailer to pick up a load of food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s free commodity distribution program and hauls it back to food banks in the Smith Center area.

But Friday’s trip was different.

In a special delivery the feds announced earlier in the week, Huffman and his grandson Nathan Huffman arrived at 9 a.m. Friday to greet an 18-wheeler filled with 1,500-pound pallets of food, destined for food pantries distributing a free box to anyone affected by the coronavirus.

“We ordered 50 boxes, we’ll see how far it goes,” said Huffman of the delivery on behalf of the Lion’s Club, which he’ll take back to food distribution points in Gaylord, Kensington, Lebanon and Smith Center.

“People have lost jobs and had their hours cut, that’s who we’re bringing it back for,” said Huffman. “We don’t really know how many people that will be; we’ll see how many show up.”

Like the other 14 vehicles in line along south Main Street by Hays Municipal Park, Huffman was waiting for the forklift and driver donated by Heartland Building Center to unload the pallets into the NCKTech parking lot. From there volunteers were breaking down the pallets into pre-made orders and loading them into vehicles.

Evelyn Clark, Morland, was one of those waiting. She was taking food back for distribution to 24 families in Morland. Sponsored by the Morland United Methodist Church, Clark planned to distribute starting at 3 p.m. Friday from the firehouse there.

“I sack it up and a person at the door will hand it to people,” Clark said. Most of the time there’s plenty of food, she said, but “sometimes I do run a little short.”

Susan and Larry Bedore were taking food back to Phillipsburg, Logan, Agra and Long Island.

“We have a lot of low-income elderly living on social security,” said Larry Bedore. Lots of places have closed down and a lot of people have lost their jobs, he said.

Part of the Federal Emergency Assistance Program, Friday’s distribution was one-of-a-kind, said Brandon Nimz, leader of the nonprofit Unite, a local ministry in Hays providing a variety of aid services.

Among it’s ministry’s, Unite coordinates at no charge the logistics to the Hays region for the federal commodity distribution program, administered in Kansas by the Department for Children and Families.

“This is the first time I’ve seen it in my five years of doing it,” said Nimz, “Normally it’s once every two months. But we had less than a week’s notice in this case.”

This delivery is called the Disaster Household Distribution, providing free boxed food from existing inventories of USDA-purchased foods to anyone affected by COVID-19, Nimz said.

Delivered by Gene Bauman of F&A Food Sales Inc., his semi-tractor-trailer rig from Concordia was going to at least three locations in western Kansas, including Hays, a regional access hub.

Waiting for his order headed to the Phillipsburg area, Larry Bedore pulled into the NCKTech parking lot. Volunteers Ben Cornwell, a sculpture major at Fort Hays State University, along with Jason Murray, pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church, and Hays farmer Rick Binder began loading flats and bundles of rice, beans, peanut butter, frozen chicken, and other canned and bagged food into Bedore’s SUV and onto his trailer.

“All right, what do we got?” called out Binder, who has been unloading the trucks for 15 years.

“Two beef stews,” said Tella Nimz, Brandon’s wife, checking off items on Bedore’s order.

“Rice?” asked Cornerstone’s Murray.

“Three rice,” Nimz replied, looking at her list.

“How many fruit packages?” Binder asked.

“Two,” she said. “And three split peas; three raisins.”

“We got the mac ’n cheese, we gotta knock out the kidney beans,” Binder shouted.

In Hays, free individual boxes will be distributed from 6-9 p.m. starting Monday curbside from the Free Store in The Gamers Guild, 200 E. 8th St., Brandon Nimz said. Other distribution sites include Hays Plaza Apartments in Hays, Ellis Baptist Church, and the Basilica of St. Fidelis in Victoria.

While the free boxes of commodities are normally reserved for people at 130% of the poverty level or below, he said, this time there are no income guidelines.

“We only need to know household size,” Nimz explained.

The food will go to nine counties throughout western Kansas. Besides Ellis County, the drivers haul to 31 commodity distribution points scattered across Graham, Norton, Osborne, Phillips, Russell, Rooks, Smith and Trego counties.

Huffman, the owner of Huffman’s Floor Covering in Smith Center, normally arrives early to be at the front of the line, knowing it usually takes 30 minutes to unload 12 pallets. When the day is done, he will have driven 240 miles round trip to make his deliveries.

“It’s one of those deals where you hurry up and wait,” Huffman said. He finally pulled away for Smith Center at 12:20 p.m.

Loading rice and peaches onto a trailer, Nimz commented, “This is usually what we do,” he said. “It’s kind of an endurance game.”