By Vince Hall, interim chief government relations officer at Feeding America
My father spent 30 years in the rice business and I remember driving a “bank out” wagon to transport the grain before I ever drove a car. From those rural roots I came to appreciate that farmers are the foundation of our nation’s food system, providing the nourishing foods we all need to lead healthy, happy lives. Farmers — through advocacy, fundraising and more — are also critical partners in our nation’s fight against hunger, especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today I’m proud to serve Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization. Working together, in 2020 we provided a record-number of meals to our neighbors in need amid new challenges to putting food on the table: a once-in-a-generation pandemic made going to the grocery store an uncertain experience, food prices reached a 50-year high and unemployment rates rivaled those of the Great Depression.
As Feeding America’s network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs worked on the frontline to stem the rising tide of hunger, farmers were, and continue to be, at the side of food banks to help meet the skyrocketing need.
Even before the spread of COVID-19, food banks and farmers have worked hand-in-hand to keep plates full through programs such as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Through TEFAP, the Agriculture Department purchases high-quality foods from U.S. farms. Feeding America, and other emergency food providers, then partner with states to provide households in need with nourishing foods.
TEFAP is a significant win-win across the board. Farmers generate income from USDA food purchases and food banks receive a steady volume of nutritious food to distribute. Last year, the people we serve took home an astounding 1.7 billion meals from TEFAP purchases of food produced on American farms.
As hunger in the U.S. is magnified during COVID-19, it has become even more clear that the charitable food sector cannot do the work of feeding the nation alone. We also need deep investments in our nation’s federal nutrition programs, from TEFAP to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — a program that provides nine meals for every one our food bank network provides.
Fortunately, when it comes to making the case for strengthening the nation’s food programs, farmers are some of our most effective supporters.
Organizations such as the American Farm Bureau have been critical allies in urging lawmakers to make use of every tool at their disposal to ensure no child goes to bed hungry and fewer families make impossible choices between paying rent and buying groceries. Last year, Farm Bureau and Feeding America teamed up to press USDA to quickly design and implement solutions to address growing hunger while national news programs broadcast images of agricultural goods being destroyed, due to pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions. Ultimately, this led to the introduction of the highly successful Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
Beyond advocacy, Farm Bureau used its successful #StillFarming campaign to shed light on how farmers are working overtime to keep our nation fed through uncertain times. AFBF has partnered with Feeding America to raise funds through the sale of campaign-themed merchandise to weather a perfect storm of increased demand, declines in food donations and disruptions to the charitable food system.
In November 2019, before the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Feeding America Chief Executive Officer Claire Babineaux-Fontenot was a guest on the Farm Food Facts podcast, where she discussed the role of farmers in ending hunger: “Farmers in this country are the bedrock of this country, and so many farmers are doing so much already to help people facing hunger.” Claire’s words were true then and they are especially true today. As our network continues to help families have full lives and full stomachs, the role of farmers in helping us do that work cannot be overstated.