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Demand for food aid stays high in second year of pandemic

The pandemic sent millions of Americans to food banks for help last year and the crush continues this year, said a food bank leader at a House hearing on USDA food donation programs on Wednesday. Feeding America, the largest food bank network in the nation, asked for a 45% funding increase for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which buys U.S.-grown food and gives it to food banks to alleviate hunger.

“We are concerned [TEFAP] can’t keep up with the headwinds and continued demand we are seeing,” said Carlos Rodriguez, president of Community FoodBank of New Jersey, who testified on behalf of Feeding America. “The Covid-19 pandemic continues to both significantly impact people facing hunger and to challenge food banks to meet higher demand for emergency food assistance.”

The 200 food banks that are part of the Feeding America network have seen, on average, a 40% increase in demand for food assistance since the start of the pandemic. The network provided 6.6 billion meals to tens of millions of people last year.

“Our national network of food banks has requested — and I encourage this committee to support — an additional $900 million for TEFAP in FY 2022 spending legislation,” said Rodriguez. TEFAP is expected to receive $2 billion in funding during fiscal 2022, which opened on Oct. 1. The government is currently operating on temporary funding because lawmakers have not agreed on spending levels for the entire year.

Supply chain disruptions and higher food prices are complicating the work of food banks, according to Feeding America. The cost to transport donated food is up by 20% and a drop in food donations means that food banks must buy food on their own for distribution.

TEFAP, which dates from the early 1980s, offers more than 120 foods, from fruits, vegetables, and meats to cheese and pasta, to food banks. Feeding America describes TEFAP as the cornerstone of its food supply. In 2020, it distributed 1.7 billion meals using donations from TEFAP and other government programs.

Also at the House Agriculture subcommittee hearing, Dave Donaldson, cofounder of CityServe International, which provides logistical guidance to churches, said faith- and community-based organizations should be part of USDA food distribution programs. If they were, “an additional 20 million people annually would be reached,” he said.

SNAP is the largest of the USDA’s public nutrition programs. Some 41.65 million people were enrolled at latest count, compared to 37 million before the pandemic.

To watch a video of the hearing, click here.

To read the written testimony of witnesses, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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