Farmers and ranchers are in the business of feeding people, and while nothing is business as usual, producers are still as ready and willing as ever to get the fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products they produce to people who need them.
To that end, the American Farm Bureau Federation has partnered with Feeding America to urge a very receptive USDA to make it easier for farmers to donate the food they cannot sell to now-closed restaurants, hotels, schools and universities. The additional donations would help food banks meet the surge in demand they’re experiencing nationwide.
“Food banks all over the country are facing an unprecedented set of circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – less food donations, less volunteers, and an increased number of people facing hunger,” according to Carrie Calvert, vice president of government relations, agriculture & nutrition at Feeding America. “In order to help the millions more neighbors turning to the Feeding America network of food banks for help, we will need to work with USDA and our partners in the food and ag industry who have excess food and find a solution to harvest, pack, process, and distribute this food to people in need.”
In a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue, Farm Bureau and Feeding America proposed a USDA-run voucher system that would allow farmers and ranchers to work directly with food banks to get farm-fresh products quickly to families in need, while also preventing food waste and helping farmers recoup some of their production costs at a time when they are fighting to hold on.
“USDA responded very enthusiastically to the proposal. They too see this as a way to help both families in need of food and farmers who are anxious to provide it,” said AFBF President Zippy Duvall.
Duvall continued, “Farmers hope this effort helps provide more food to the increasing number of struggling families throughout the country. The program would also help farmers, who are struggling themselves, at least recover some of what they put into planting and harvesting. Without restaurants, hotels and other outlets to sell their produce to, farmers in many cases can’t afford to pick their fruits or pull their vegetables from the ground.”
It’s a problem produce growers in Florida, who are heavily reliant on a booming tourism industry, know all too well, according to John Hoblick, Florida Farm Bureau president.
“In Florida and other states across the nation, normal sales of perishable foods to restaurants, food service companies, entertainment facilities and other businesses have been severely reduced and even ceased in some instances. These are challenges within themselves. However, couple that with the continuation of discounted foreign imports, our producers are facing some of the most difficult of times. If this persists, large volumes of these foods will be lost. Farmers and consumers need assistance to solve this unprecedented supply and demand problem,” Hoblick said, urging USDA to move forward with a voucher program.
In their letter, Farm Bureau and Feeding America noted that such a program would simply be an expansion of existing partnerships farmers and ranchers have with food banks. A voucher system coupled with some necessary regulatory tweaks that keep food safety paramount would allow farmers and food banks to work directly with one another instead of relying upon third parties, which sometimes delays the farm-to-food bank timeline.
“This is an opportunity for USDA to act quickly to produce a win for food banks and a win for farmers,” groups wrote. “It’s a chance for government to serve as a facilitator while clearing bureaucracy and red tape, which fits well within the philosophy you have followed in your leadership of the department.”