The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is one of the lesser known but important parts of our safety net. In fact, I knew virtually nothing about it until I started working on this posting.
Thanks to the ‘net, I’ve learned how something I’ve long opposed–agricultural price supports–is linked to something I deeply care about–ensuring that poor people have enough to eat. Organizations representing these seemingly disparate interests have come together because TEFAP urgently needs additional funds.
Here’s the story.
Under TEFAP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture distributes food commodities to states, which then distribute them to food banks and/or directly to emergency food providers like soup kitchens and pantries. Feeding America, which networks food banks across the country, says that TEFAP provides a steady stream of foods to the banks–often the most nutritious foods they distribute to hungry people.
USDA purchases some of the commodities with an annual appropriation that’s linked to the costs of the Thrifty Food Plan–the agency’s lowest-cost estimate of a nutritionally-adequate market basket. It also distributes so-called bonus commodities, i.e., foods it buys to support producers’ prices when supply exceeds demand.
In Fiscal Year 2009, the regular TEFAP appropriation provided $250 million for food purchases. The economic recovery act added $150 million. And states got about $400 million in bonus commodities.
For Fiscal Year 2010, the regular appropriation for food purchases dropped to $248 million due to the dip in food prices. An additional $60 million was appropriated specifically for cheese and other dairy. (Do we perceive a successful lobbying effort here?)
So it seems that funds for regular commodity purchases are down by $92 million. Restrictions on how USDA can use certain carryover funds mean that bonus commodity donations could drop to less than $200 million.
Meanwhile, the recession has strained the capacities of food banks and the providers they serve. A September 2009 Feeding America survey found that:
- More than half of the 176 participating food banks or the agencies that help them distribute food had had to turn people away.
- About 78% of the food banks or their partner agencies had to reduce the amount of food they distributed or the frequency of distributions.
- For 91% of the food banks, unemployment was a critical factor in increasing the need for emergency food.
When the survey was conducted, the unemployment rate was 9.8%. It was just one-tenth of a percent lower in January and expected to peak at 10.5%-11% in the third quarter of this fiscal year. Last month 6.3 million people had been jobless for at least 27 weeks–900,000 more than in September.
So there’s every reason to believe that needs for emergency food assistance have already increased and will increase further before the Fiscal Year 2011 budget kicks in.
The organizations mentioned above are calling on the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committees to increase Fiscal Year 2010 funding for TEFAP by $250 million.
If I’ve got the math right, this would still leave food banks with less in food commodities from USDA than they had last year. But it would minimize the emergency in emergency food assistance programs and give a boost to farmers too.