Food banks around the country said they may not be prepared to execute the Trump administration’s plan to get additional billions in food to hungry Americans, raising questions about the new federal program’s effectiveness.
Last month, the administration set in motion a $1.2 billion program to send food to the nation’s food banks as part of its wider effort to bail out farmers hurt by the president’s trade war.
The Agriculture Department usually distributes 700 million pounds of food through state officials to the nation’s largest food bank network, but that number is expected to more than double this year under the administration’s program.
Local food bank officials said they are thrilled by the opportunity to feed more Americans who need help, but worry they will not be able to process all of the newly available agricultural products that could double or triple the amount of food they typically handle. They are racing to ramp up their capacity — from trucking capabilities to refrigeration — in time for the program, hoping not to miss on a rare opportunity to get fresh fruit and protein products to poor residents who lack them.
“This is a very large influx of food in a very short period of time, and we have a network that has been stretched capacity-wise,” said Andy Souza, president of the Community found Bank of California. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure no family goes hungry, but we are worried we could have to turn away truckloads of foods.”
The administration last month began a $12 billion bailout program for American farmers who may be hurt by Chinese tariffs, which were imposed in retaliation to U.S. actions amid an intensifying trade war between the world’s two largest economies. As part of that effort, the Agriculture Department will spend about $1.2 billion purchasing commodities from farmers and distributing them through child nutrition and emergency food assistance programs, which are run through the nation’s network of nonprofit food banks.
The USDA announced last month that the program would distribute commodities that food banks are often sorely need, including fruit such as apples, blueberries, cranberries, pears, as well as protein such as beef and pork. The money will be spent in four different phases over the next 12 months, beginning in December.
The food banks will only receive the amount of food they can handle, so officials are not worried the food will arrive and then spoil at the food banks, according to interviews with several food bank officials. But even as they race to increase their capacity, Feeding America, the nation’s largest food bank network, has asked the Agriculture Department to help it improve the necessary infrastructure. The bailout program does not reimburse the food banks for costs, like hiring additional truckers or buying additional freezers to meet the demand.
“We need more support to get this to the people who need it,” said Chad Morrison, executive director of the Mountaineer Food Bank of West Virginia. “There’s so much cost in getting this food — trucking costs; food safety costs; staffing costs — that we are worried about and have to take into consideration.”
Morrison said he is worried that the rural branches that help distribute food for the food bank — “sometimes church basements as small as eight feet by six feet that they serve food from” — do not have space for the milk cartons and other goods headed their way.
“A lot of our partners don’t have a lot of capacity to store product, or funding to buy a freezer even if they did have the space,” Morrison said.
A USDA spokesperson noted the program is still in its early days, as the agency is still trying to figure out how to distribute the new commodities.
The scramble underscores that it is primarily driven by assistance for farmers rather than to help the hungry, critics said.
“To solve food insecurity you really want a consistent flow of high-quality, high-nutrition products,” said Elaine Waxman, a food bank expert at the Urban Institute. “The larger context here is that this is about the well-being of farmers.”
About 40 million Americans go hungry every year, according to Feeding America, the nonprofit food bank group coordinating the effort. Minnesota Hunger Solutions, which works with food bank groups throughout the state, is considering launching “pop-ups” — street stands where they typically give away produce — for the glut of milk expected to end up on their shelves. Colleen Moriarty, executive director of the group, criticized the USDA for not offering reimbursements to the food bank for the cost of preparations and other expenses to prepare for the food.
“That was an oversight they should correct,” Moriarty said. “Though we’ll go the extra mile, work as hard as we can, and absorb the cost if we have to.”
Dave Krepcho, president and CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, compared his recent preparations to the days before Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma. But unlike those events, he said, the food bank is unlikely to see a big increase in donations.
“Typically what happens is the population usually bands together after a disaster,” Krepcho said. “We can see that storm or wave of milk coming and when it does happen, the community empathy toward this is not going to be there as it is during a natural disaster.”