Lawsuit Seeks More Federal Spending to Help Supply Nonprofit Feeding Programs

Bread for the City, one of the District of Columbia’s largest nonprofit sources of food and services for poor and near-poor residents, has sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It contends that the agency has failed to spend as much on TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program) as the current Farm Bill requires. So it’s not receiving all the non-perishables it could put in the grocery bags it distributes as it would if USDA complied with the law.

If true, at least 60,000 free food providers nationwide — pantries, dining rooms and home-delivered equivalents — could have less than Congress intended. They’d have been shy the food equivalent of about $303 million last fiscal year, judging from USDA’s account of its state-by-state distribution.

The relevant legislation is beyond my capacity to parse. As a legal expert explained it, the alleged under-spending involves two identical provisions — one in the current Farm Bill and one in the former Farm Bill, which it amended.

Basically, he said, each adds $250 million to a base that’s annually adjusted for food price increases, as reflected in the Thrifty Food Plan, which USDA uses to set SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

The current bill then adds a further increase that ratchets down from $50 million last fiscal year to $40 million for the current budget year, then further down through 2018.

The lawsuit contends that USDA should have spent $602 million on food purchases last year. USDA, however, interprets the law to have authorized only $327 million — this apparently because it sees a single applicable provision where the legal expert (and Bread’s lawyers) see two.

Even that’s a boost from the roughly $265.8 million authorized for Fiscal Year 2013. But the boost the lawsuit claims Congress authorized is obviously much larger. A substantial boost would not be unprecedented, however.

Congress, I’m told, often increases TEFAP funding when it cuts funding for SNAP, it did in the new Farm Bill, which reduced benefits for an expected 850,000 or so households.

The notion, it seems, is to partly compensate for the fact that SNAP cuts cause more poor and near-poor people to seek food from nonprofit providers — and to cause more to seek it more often.

Feeding America reported more frequent visits to the feeding programs its food bank network helps supply — partly with foods it gets from TEFAP — even before Congress cut SNAP benefits. And a large increase in people served too.

Bread for the City’s experience indicates that the trend continues. During the last fiscal year, its pantry served 11-12% more low-income households, a spokesperson told me. At the same time, the dollar value of commodities from TEFAP has dropped markedly, she said. And, of course, food costs are rising.

As a result, Bread has to rely more on what it gets from private donors to purchase what it distributes — three day’s worth of groceries per month for all low-income residents who apply and have equipment at home to fix meals.

It hasn’t turned any away or reduced the amount it distributes, as some feeding programs have. Nor has it compromised its high nutrition standards for what goes into the grocery bags.

But we see here again an instance of the cost-shifting I’ve spoken of before — a linchpin of new House Speaker Ryan’s explicit justification for large-scale cuts in safety net programs.

As Congress under-funds federal food assistance programs, private-sector organizations — both nonprofits and their donors — do their best to fill “the meal gap,” as Feeding America calls it. But there’s only so much they can do.

Two years ago, filling the gap, i.e., providing every food insecure household in the country with enough extra money to have no imminent risk of hunger, would have cost an additional $24.2 billion, Feeding America reports.

No way the private sector could come up with that much more. And the cost of filling the gap would actually be larger because the Census survey that USDA uses for its food (in)security reports doesn’t include individuals and families who are homeless.

The percent of eligible District residents who receive SNAP benefits is extraordinarily high. Yet more than 41,300 housed households — an average of roughly one in seven — suffered from food insecurity during the three-year period including 2014.

The Food Research and Action Center, which uses a roughly equivalent measure and a larger survey sample, reports somewhat more than one in six for 2014 alone.

These figures provide a perspective on the challenges the District’s nonprofit food assistance network faces, though, as I’ve suggested, only partial, since we’ve got hungry homeless people too.

The challenges are, of course, not unique. In Mississippi, for example, the latest three-year average food insecurity rate is 22% and FRAC’s latest food hardship rate even higher.

The court order Bread’s lawsuit seeks wouldn’t make these challenges manageable. And I’m not prepared to predict the outcome — or even comment on the validity of the claim.

But it does seem that TEFAP, like other parts of our safety net, could do more to relieve hunger and malnutrition if federal spending better reflected need.

 

 

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