USDA announces $1 billion in food programs, United Fresh not satisfied
The Agriculture Department announced Friday it would spend $900 million to buy food for domestic distribution programs and $100 million on infrastructure, but the United Fresh Produce Association said the plan is insufficient to meet goals for consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Hunger is on the decline thanks to aggressive action by the Biden-Harris administration, but we must do more to improve partnerships and infrastructure that power emergency food distribution to ensure the food provided is nutritious and supports a better food system,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release.
“Now is the time to apply lessons learned from food assistance activities early in the pandemic to improve how USDA purchases food and supports on-the-ground organizations with TEFAP. We will put special emphasis on reaching rural, remote and underserved communities, local and regional food systems, and socially disadvantaged farmers.”
The program will be funded through the American Rescue Plan Act ($500 million) and the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 ($500 million).
USDA said it would spend $500 million for The Emergency Food Assistance Program and that USDA will enter into cooperative agreements with state, Tribal and local entities to purchase food from local producers and invest in infrastructure that enables partner organizations to more effectively reach underserved communities.
USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service will also spend $400 million to establish cooperative agreements with state and Tribal governments or other local entities to purchase food for the food bank network from local and regional producers (within the state or within 400 miles) and from socially disadvantaged producers.
“AMS will use innovative approaches to ensure these agreements facilitate relationships between farmers, ranchers and producers and local and regional food systems,” USDA said.
Finally, USDA Food and Nutrition Service will administer a new $100 million grant program aimed at helping food assistance organizations meet TEFAP requirements, strengthen infrastructure, and expand their reach into rural, remote, and low-income communities.
“This grant program incorporates lessons learned from the Farmers to Families Food Box program,” USDA said.
“It can help local organizations and former food box groups participate in the state’s emergency food network and help pantries build capacity for storage and refrigeration. These grants will help support organizations serving underserved communities and communities of color.”
The USDA announcement did not specify how much of the $1 billion would be spent on fruits and vegetables, and United Fresh Produce Association Senior Vice President of Policy Robert Guenther said United Fresh and its members “are concerned that this proposal falls short of providing sufficient access to fresh produce to meet that goal.”
Guenther said that through the Trump administration’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, “over the past year, we have learned much about how federal food purchasing can work better when parameters are put in place that frees USDA to prioritize factors like access to a wide variety of fresh produce sourced from a diverse set of growers (including small and regional) and expanding the emergency feeding network to be more inclusive of credible nonprofits that can address the unique needs of local communities, including rural and historically marginalized populations.”
“At its peak, USDA was purchasing nearly 6 million boxes per week, featuring more than 100 types of fresh produce commodities, and utilizing a local distribution network of more than 11,000 community nonprofits, including TEFAP agencies,” Guenther said.
“While well-intentioned, the TEFAP Fresh Produce Program as currently implemented follows an antiquated model that cannot meet the full potential in addressing nutrition insecurity. Quite frankly, the evolution of emergency food purchasing that moved away from USDA’s traditional food purchase programs during the COVID-19 pandemic should not be ignored or dismissed.
“USDA has an enormous opportunity to procure the foods that will help individuals meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ recommendations to make half the plate fruits and vegetables. We know that this administration is committed to increasing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and we remain hopeful that together we can work to make this vision a reality.”
Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, and the National Farmers Union were more supportive.
Feeding America CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot said, “Our network of food banks looks forward to partnering with states and local nonprofit organizations who are interested in distributing nutritious foods provided by USDA, and in creating new partnerships to strengthen our ability to serve people in need.”
“Feeding America estimates the announcement by USDA will help put at least 750 million additional meals on the tables of the families we serve.
“We project that during 2021, approximately 42 million people — one in eight individuals in America — could experience food insecurity due in part to the ongoing economic fallout from COVID-19,” Babineaux-Fontenot said.
“Last year, USDA foods provided 2.4 billion meals out of the 6.1 billion meals provided by the Feeding America network to people in need, 39% of all food distributed by food banks. USDA foods provided to food banks are expected to decline 30-40% in 2021 as temporary food purchase programs end. USDA foods and TEFAP are a cornerstone of the charitable food system, taking food from U.S. producers and farmers and putting it on the table of families facing hunger.
“Today’s purchases provide a much-needed increase in food assistance for people facing hunger and build upon local partnerships established between food banks and growers who have worked together for years to connect excess crops with families in need.”
National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said, “No one should have to worry about where their next meal might come from. Unfortunately, that has been the reality for far too many American families, both during the pandemic and long before.”
“But it doesn’t need to be this way. Family farmers and ranchers work hard to feed their communities, and there is more than enough food to go around,” Larew said.
“By strengthening the nutrition safety net, the Biden administration’s initiative would help mitigate our hunger crisis — while also offering farmers more options for distributing the food they grow. Both of these results will take us a few steps further on the path to pandemic recovery and to a food system that serves farmers and eaters alike.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., also praised the announcement.
“This announcement is yet another positive step as Secretary Tom Vilsack and his team at USDA roll out the provisions of the American Rescue Plan and our efforts to reduce food insecurity in America,” Scott said in a news release.
“I am particularly pleased to see the critical investment in $400 million that will support socially disadvantaged farmers at a local and regional level. These partnerships with farmers and food banks will ensure that the programs feeding communities are supporting their own local agricultural systems.”
Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., added, “One of my primary missions as the chair of the Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations is to work to eliminate hunger and food insecurity in this country.”
“This announcement from USDA is key and showcases efforts that bolster food bank networks and improve the use of local food systems as necessary solutions to protect those who are food insecure and at the edges of a fragile economic recovery. I look forward to working with Secretary Vilsack and USDA as they implement this program, and we continue the fight against hunger.”
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign SB 21-87, known as the Farm Workers Bill of Rights, though much of the content will be decided through the rulemaking process.