Congress, Mother Nature, and Foodborne Illness: Food Banks Struggling to Fight Unusual Challenges

A myriad of strange events have left the nation’s food banks in desperate circumstances.

Volunteers in New Jersey hand out food to Sandy Volunteers (Photo: Tom Mihalek/Reuters)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

While emergency food supplies have finally started making their way into communities hard hit by superstorm Sandy, those who depend on local food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens for assistance may be left hungry. From Vermont to Tennessee to Arizona, officials with emergency food programs around the nation say cuts and uncertainty in federal nutrition programs, combined with nationwide food recalls, are leaving shelves barren as we move into the holiday season.

For St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance in Arizona—one of the largest food banks in the nation, distributing 5.5 million pounds of food a month—it was the peanut butter recall that hurt.

“The peanut butter recall killed us,” Beverly Damore, president and CEO of St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, tells TakePart. “It was so massive and kept expanding, and it hit to the core of one of the items we want the most. It really just cut a swath through the middle of our warehouse.”

For food banks like those in Nashville and Vermont, the story is more complicated.

Stimulus funds distributed in 2009 and 2010 under the Obama Administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act have dried up. At the same time, the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)—which supplied $565 million in total food resources to states in 2012, also saw a decline in what they call “bonus buys”—a program that many food banks rely on to supply quality food like eggs, milk, produce and more.

Agriculture demand was so high this year, a USDA spokesperson tells us, that the agency simply didn’t need to step in with “bonus buys,” with the exception of this summer’s devastating drought. The drought caused the price of feed to skyrocket, forcing farmers and ranchers to slaughter livestock. In August, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak announced the agency would purchase $170 million of pork, lamb, chicken, and catfish to help stabilize the market, and direct the purchase towards food nutrition assistance programs, including food banks. While the “bonus buy” program directly helps American growers and those who rely on food assistance, when farm surplus goes down, as it did this year, the amount of food that ends up on food pantry shelves dips as well.

And then, there’s the still-languishing Farm Bill.

Funding for the TEFAP program falls under the 2012 Farm Bill. While the Senate voted to increase spending on the program, the bill was blocked by House Republicans.

“It puts a big cloud of uncertainty over the program because we don’t know the outcome of the Farm Bill,” says Damore. “About 15 percent of our total poundage goes through USDA programs like TEFAP.”

With rumors that passage of the Farm Bill could be delayed as late as April 2013, slim pickings at food banks may be the future for one in six Americans who are hungry.

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