Roll Call: Senators eye FEMA as alternative for speeding aid to food banks

by Ellyn Ferguson

The top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee suggested on Monday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency tap the disaster relief fund to aid food banks that have seen a surge in demand as U.S. unemployment rolls surged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Homeland Security Appropriations ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a letter that the Agriculture Department has been slow to obligate the $850 million Congress provided in March legislation for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

Under the program, the department helps farmers by buying up food, removing price-depressing surpluses from the market. The purchases are donated to food banks and other nonprofit groups that feed low-income people.

In the letter to FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor, Leahy and Tester focused on TEFAP and urged Gaynor to consider using part of the $79 billion the agency has in available balances, including $45 billion appropriators provided in March, for food purchases. The lawmakers say that FEMA has only obligated $5.8 billion towards temporary medical facilities, National Guard deployments, personal protective equipment and other emergency protective measures.

Leahy and Tester said FEMA has the authority to address food aid under an April 12, 2020, policy that says food is an eligible expense under the disaster relief fund.

“Whether making DRF funding quickly available to distribute food or providing assistance to grow the capacity to distribute food safely, we believe FEMA has the authority and capacity to deliver food to those who need it faster than the cumbersome status quo process being used by USDA,” the senators wrote.

“We urge you to coordinate with other agencies, such as USDA and governors, to ensure food assistance is reaching those most in need,” Leahy and Tester said.

A spokesman for FEMA declined to comment on the letter.

The TEFAP program is among several the USDA uses for food purchases, including those for the federal school lunch program and other nutrition programs.

The USDA has announced it will spend $470 million, largely on dairy, fish, chicken, pork, potatoes, strawberries and turkey in the third quarter for delivery to food banks. On May 8, the department also announced $1.2 billion in contracts to commercial and nonprofit distributors to purchase, package and send out boxes of dairy, fresh produce and meat to nonprofit organizations such as food banks. The contracts cover deliveries from May 15 to June 30.

The $1.2 billion is outside the TEFAP program and part of a larger COVID-19 relief package that includes $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and ranchers adversely affected by public health restrictions that shut down their markets and reduced available buyers.