Harlem’s Espaillat, Meng, And Velázquez Work To Strengthen Pandemic Food Security Programs

April 2, 2021

U.S. Reps. Adriano Espaillat, Grace Meng, and Nydia M. Velázquez announced their letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the administration to take all necessary steps to ensure future food relief initiatives.

Like the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, are equitable and accessible to all those in need.

The correspondence comes in response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s request for public comment to potentially replace the Farmers to Families Food Box Program with a new program to distribute additional aid to nonprofits serving Americans who are facing food insecurity.

USDA noted in its request for public input, that “[w]hile the food box effort served some communities well, it faced challenges in others.”

The Members of Congress in their letter specifically urged Secretary Vilsack to include the following recommendations in a future food relief program that:

  1. Ensure transparent communication with all participants of this program well in advance of any rule changes;
  2. Accept contracts for both combination boxes, and boxes that provide only meat, dairy, or produce; and
  3. Ensure vendors have the flexibility to provide excess food supply to those in need, beyond their geographical jurisdiction.

“Millions of Americans—including tens of thousands of New Yorkers—struggled to put food on the table during COVID-19. To address this issue, Congress created the Farmers to Families Food Box Program to ensure no family goes hungry,” said the Congressmembers. “Paved with best intentions, the program was hobbled by miscommunication with program participants, restrictions on what types of food boxes could be provided, and lack of flexibility to serve different areas beyond their geographical jurisdiction. As USDA considers a new food relief program, it is imperative that our recommendations be included to ensure it serves all communities, including those who are Kosher and Halal observant. We look forward to Secretary Vilsack’s response.”

“The Families Food Box Program has been a critical resource to so many New Yorkers in need over the past year,” said Kate Mackenzie, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy. “I am grateful to Representatives Meng, Velazquez, and Espaillat for their continued advocacy and commitment to ensure that future iterations of this program are as strong and equitable as possible.”

“The potential impact of this program is significant to our work of providing fresh, healthy food to New Yorkers in need,” said GrowNYC President and CEO Marcel Van Ooyen. “We hope the USDA will consider increasing individual purchasing power for families hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as address the recommendations presented by Representatives Meng, Velázquez, and Espaillat, along with those of other local stakeholders including mid-sized farms and non-profit organizations like GrowNYC.”

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act created CFAP, a $19 billion program to help agricultural producers – who have faced a five percent or greater decline in commodity prices – access financial relief during COVID-19.

The program also supports funding for USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which allows USDA to purchase fresh produce, dairy, and meat products from American producers to package into boxes that are distributed by non-profits, and faith-based and community organizations to Americans facing food insecurity.

The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program’s Farmers to Families Food Box initiative is administered by the USDA.

The text of the letter to Secretary Vilsack is below and a copy of the correspondence can be viewed here.

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

We write to submit public comment on the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Like the rest of the country, New York City has experienced dire food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lines at our food pantries are the longest we have seen in our lifetimes, and many of those lining up are relying on food assistance for the first time. When the program has worked, the Farmers to Families Food Box Program has provided tremendous relief to our constituents. However, the program’s logistical and communications problems have caused inconsistent deliveries, excluded certain populations from benefiting, and created an enormous administrative burden for non-profits. We strongly support additional rounds of this program, provided that the concerns our food banks and non-profits have experienced are addressed.

First, between each round of this program, there have been unclear rule changes, vendor changes, and a lack of communication with pantries and non-profits. These issues have prevented our hungry constituents from accessing food. On multiple occasions, our pantries learned on a Friday that the food their community was reliant on would not be showing up on the following Monday. USDA must ensure transparent communication with all participants of this program well in advance of any rule changes.

Second, after the first round, USDA only accepted contracts from vendors that could provide combination boxes with meat, dairy, and produce. As a result, kosher and vegetarian food banks, both of which often serve our halal observant constituents, could no longer participate in this program. Similarly, producers without onsite refrigeration could not provide produce-only boxes. In future rounds, we urge USDA to accept contracts for both combination boxes and boxes that provide only meat, dairy, or produce.

Third, during certain rounds, vendors with extra supply were barred from sending boxes to boroughs whose vendors came up short. For example, a vendor who was restricted to supplying to Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island told us they had enough supply for Queens and the Bronx, but weren’t permitted to extend their radius. We urge USDA to ensure that vendors have the flexibility to provide excess food supply to those in need, beyond their geographical jurisdiction.

As USDA reevaluates COVID food assistance programs, we urge you to take all possible steps to ensure that these programs are equitable and accessible for all those in need.

Sincerely, L

Click here to find more information about Harlem elected U.S. Reps. Adriano Espaillat.

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