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Inflation means longer lines at food banks

Americans are turning to food banks for help in the face of rising food, fuel, child care and housing costs, the chief executive of the Atlanta Community Food Bank told lawmakers on Tuesday. “Our distribution volumes are rising again” and now match the early months of the pandemic, when hunger was on the rise, said Kyle Waide, the chief executive.

Nationwide, operating costs are climbing significantly for food banks, he said. Some 55% of the 200 food banks in the Feeding America network say donations of food are down at the same time pandemic relief programs, including a river of government-purchased foods for distribution to the poor, are winding down too.

“We cannot do our work alone,” said Waide at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on nutrition assistance programs aside from SNAP. “We need help and in particular, we need access to more of the high-quality food commodities provided by the USDA through programs authorized by the farm bill.”

Congress should increase mandatory annual funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to $450 million and earmark $200 million a year for distribution costs. Created in the early 1980s, TEFAP is a USDA program that purchases nutritious foods and gives them to states for distribution through charities. In fiscal 2020, TEFAP was given $322.3 million for so-called entitlement commodities and $79.6 million for administrative costs. At its discretion, the USDA buys “bonus” commodities for donation; in 2018, those purchases were $308.9 million.

“Our recommendation is $450 million in baseline funding nationwide,” said Waide.

“We want to work with you on that,” said House Agriculture chairman David Scott, who said he was troubled by the longer lines at food banks. “We are determined to make sure no one in our country goes hungry.”

Waide also called for easier eligibility for lower-income older Americans into the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides a box of food each month to an estimated 780,000 people. Recipients must have incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line, or $15,301 for someone living alone.

The senior Republican on the committee, Glenn Thompson, said fiscal belt-tightening was the proper response to high inflation. “I do hope today delivers a realistic discussion on how to combat these excessive costs and ensure that those in need have access,” he said. “But more spending and expanded eligibility are not necessarily the answer.”

Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern said he supported expansion of USDA programs such as the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP), which provides incentives for SNAP recipients to buy fruits and vegetables. Incentives were a better way to improve diets, he said, than proposals to ban SNAP purchases of candy or soda.

To watch a video of the hearing, click here.

The written testimony of witnesses is available here.

A USDA fact sheet on TEFAP is available here.

A Congressional Research Service report on TEFAP was available here.

A USDA fact sheet on GusNIP is available here.

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