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Booker backs a food box program for fruits and vegetables

Sen. Cory Booker, the new chairman of the Senate nutrition subcommittee, called for a permanent food box program to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to communities “in desperate need for healthy produce.” Booker also said $20 billion a year should be devoted to USDA climate mitigation programs and that a moratorium should be imposed on mergers in the agricultural sector.

“As you know, I am chairman now of the subcommittee on nutrition and specialty crops, and I’m bringing it,” Booker said at the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting on Friday. “I’m going to bring a focus on food justice and the nutrition crisis that is sending generations of our elders to an early death and robbing our children of too much of their precious potential. I’ll be spending my time and energy on these priorities, and many more on that committee.”

Although a newcomer to the Senate Agriculture Committee this year, Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, was immediately named leader of its nutrition subcommittee. Booker, who was elected to a second term last year, has filed an array of legislation that affects agriculture, from a proposal to phase out industrial-scale livestock farms to reforms at the USDA to eradicate discrimination against minority farmers. He was an author of the proposal, enacted as part of the latest coronavirus relief bill, to retire an estimated $4 billion owed by socially disadvantaged farmers on USDA loans.

“Remember, we have a well documented history of overt discrimination by the USDA against Black farmers,” replied Booker when asked about lawsuits that challenge the debt relief as unconstitutional. “So I believe that lawsuit does not have merit, and that the USDA should move forward with implementing these programs as quickly as possible with the assistance the Congress provided.”

Booker drew on his experience as a member of the city council and later the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, in describing a crisis of diet-related chronic diseases afflicting Americans. The White House should convene a conference to revamp farm and nutrition policy, he said.

“I also believe that we need to create a permanent USDA specialty crop food box program that pays a fair price to our farmers and delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to communities across our country like mine in Newark, where they are in desperate need for healthy produce.”

The Biden administration is testing an initiative, using pandemic relief funds, to buy 10- to 12-pound boxes of fresh produce for distribution through a USDA program, The Emergency Food Assistance Program, that works with food banks to provide food to people in need. It would run through Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year.

At a House hearing in mid-April, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the fresh produce box, and a separate dairy donation program, should be “more efficient and less costly, which means we’re going to have more resources for more food for more people.” The fresh produce must be locally grown and have a shelf life of 7-10 days from when it is delivered, said a USDA notice to suppliers last week.

It would replace the much-criticized Farmers to Families Food Box that was the Trump administration’s response to hunger during the pandemic. The Trump food box, with combinations of produce, dairy and cooked meat, relied on contractors to buy, pack and deliver boxes of food to food banks, churches, schools and charities. The government will spend $5.5 billion on the food boxes by the time funding runs out at the end of May.

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