Farmers, food banks hoping to collaborate to overcome pandemic-induced shortages
The far-reaching effects of the global pandemic have crept into the daily lives of food-service industry workers, food banks, and now, farmers.
ABC News reports that as major companies that sell food indefinitely shut down, the farmers that sell the food to these commercial clients are seeing contracts canceled for produce they've already grown and milk they can't easily repackage for individual sale before it goes bad.
Several meatpacking plants that process beef, pork and poultry have also closed to deal with COVID-19 cases among employees, leading to concerns about delays and disruptions.
A Farm Bureau official said that after seeing so many reports of farmers dumping crops and Americans lining up at food banks, the two organizations decided to join forces to work with the USDA to address the problem.
In a letter to the USDA the groups specifically mention a possible voucher program that could allow food banks to get food directly from farmers and ranchers while covering some of the cost of harvest and distribution for farmers, but the official said they are open to any policy options.
The $2 trillion relief bill gave the USDA $9.5 billion to buy milk, produce or other products from farmers and redistribute them to food banks around the country.
But officials with Feeding America said that process can involve a lot of red tape and they're hoping for a quicker solution.
“This is an opportunity for USDA to act quickly to produce a win for food banks and a win for farmers. It is a chance for government to serve as a facilitator while clearing bureaucracy and red tape. We pledge our willingness to work with you and your staff in quickly implementing such a program in response to urgent, critical needs,” they wrote in the letter signed by Feeding America President Claire Babineaux-Fontenot and Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall.
Lawmakers from the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have also called on the USDA to prioritize local farmers who sell or donate products directly to Americans in need.
Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer for Feeding America, said that in addition to increased need, food banks are having to purchase large amounts because they seeing a dip in donations.
“Food banks, like all of us, were not anticipating this intense surge in demand. And at the same time our model, it really relies on donated food out of the supply chain, mostly in retail and manufacturing, and those sources of donations have really diminished greatly over the last four weeks,” she told ABC News.
The USDA is providing food to states through emergency programs and has offered additional flexibilities for states to provide school meals, food stamp benefits and for residents in more states to use their benefits to buy food online.
Feeding America also emphasized that the federal government plays a major role in helping Americans get enough healthy food. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, provides nine meals to every one a food bank distributes. Feeding America said their number one policy priority is to increase SNAP benefits by 15% to provide more lasting help for Americans who need help to access healthy food. In the meantime, they are working to help states apply for all the flexibilities available to them to make food available through government programs.
“This is a problem that our food bank system -- however strong and capable it is -- is not able to solve on its own, it requires a massive government solution, through the various federal nutrition programs, TFAP, other than child nutrition programs, and it has to include a SNAP solution,” Fitzgerald said, adding that food banks can be one of the most accessible places for Americans to learn how to access those programs.
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