Health

Legislators approve food assistance program, expand options for charities

By EMMA PHELPS

(CNS) – More Virginia-based fresh produce will be available at Virginia’s charitable food organizations if Gov. Ralph Northam signs concurrent bills establishing a Virginia Food Assistance Fund and Program (VFAF).

Sponsored by Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, both bills received their final votes in the Virginia House and Senate on Feb. 25.

The legislation directs the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture to establish guidelines for a program that provides grants to local farmers who distribute their products to Virginia’s area food banks.

Eddie Oliver, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, had been working with Northam’s office on similar initiatives and partnered with Sen. Hashmi to consider the overall goal of the program.

“The impact would mean significantly more Virginia-based food products going through our network of 1,500 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters,” Oliver said.

Heidi Hertz, assistant secretary of agriculture and forestry for Northam, said the program funding and codification would begin next fiscal year on July 1 with a $600,000 budget, if the legislation is signed.

“The way that the legislation reads, the funding can go to any charitable food assistance organization, like food banks, to cover costs like harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting food — fruits, vegetables, any Virginia products, dairy poultry, beef, grains,” Hertz said, “so while the guidelines haven’t been developed, they will follow that framework, where it has to be a charitable food assistance organization, and the charitable organization has to be purchasing one of those Virginia products.”

The overall goal for the program would be to offer support on both ends of the food supply chain.

“We’re establishing this program for the first time, we’re connecting Virginia food to Virginia families, and it’s the win-win benefit of new markets for farmers and growers, who may need a place to sell their product,” Hertz said, “and a win for the charitable food assistance organizations who are providing much needed support to Virginians.”

Feed More, Inc., one of Virginia’s largest charitable food organizations and a member of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, is one of the eligible charitable partner organizations with Virginia’s producers.

Before the pandemic in February 2020, there were approximately 162,000 food insecure people in Feed More’s 34 cities and counties in Virginia, according to statistics provided by Ellen Thornhill, media spokesperson for Feed More. Since March 2020, Feed More has witnessed a 31% increase in the number of food insecure people in its region, reaching approximately 212,000 people today.

The disparity in food assistance before and during the pandemic was an incentive for the legislation’s creation.

“What we were seeing was empty grocery store shelves, but then growers, farmers, and producers who had excess supply because restaurants had closed or changed how they functioned or the universities and schools had gone to different distribution ways,” Hertz said. “On the other hand, for our producers, in some cases, there was excess, so we had this really unfortunate situation where the food they were growing and producing was critically important but may not have been accessible by the folks who needed it the most.”

The Virginia Farm Bureau has partnered with the Federation of Virginia Food Banks on previous initiatives to connect farmers and food banks.

“If a producer is looking to donate fresh products, we can use our contacts at the food banks to help get them in the right place,” Stefanie Taillon, the assistant director of government relations with the Virginia Farm Bureau, said. “One good example is southeast peanut farmers have been collectively donating jars of peanut butter to food banks for many years now.”

The program not only eases the food bank’s efforts to provide more nutritional food but also eliminates the overhead costs for farmers to successfully give their produce to pantries.

“This is a great initiative to tackle some of the issues that make it cost prohibitive for producers to donate fresh products,” Taillon said. “For example, things like packaging and transportation can often be a barrier to getting those fresh products into the hands of those who need it in a timely manner.

Although the legislation allows for food insecure families to have greater access to fresh food, it also means that charitable food organizations in Virginia will have to tackle the challenge of connecting with producers and ensuring they have the resources needed to keep fresh produce.

“As you can imagine this program is a much different lift than shelf-stable food, it’s a different type of program because we’re dealing with fresh, local food — you’re not going to the grocery store and just buying everything in one shopping cart — you may be contracting with a beef processor for beef, or a cabbage grower for cabbage, or an apple orchard for apples,” Hertz said.

With the establishment of a food assistance program, many eligible charitable organizations would need greater climate-controlled units to provide fresh produce to their patrons.

“Being able to distribute more fresh produce, dairy and lean meats is a priority for Feed More,” Thornhill said in an email. “Thanks to $1 million in CARES funding late last year we have been able to provide many of our agencies — the food pantries and other non-profits that distribute food into the community — with additional climate-controlled refrigeration.”

Oliver said he hopes the greater access and connections with Virginia farmers will lead to even more partnerships outside of the VFAF program.

“There may be donation opportunities outside this funding stream that become available to us because they’re [Virginia producers] aware of food banks and already working with us,” he said.

A date has not been set for Northam to read the bills, but all parties hope for his support

“It really was a whole team effort, and we were really glad to have partners from Farm Bureau and the [Virginia] Agribusiness Council,” Oliver said. “Their support shows that a) they recognize food insecurity is a serious issue in Virginia, and b) this legislation would help the overall food system and provide additional funding support to pay some of those fixed costs that producers incur to harvest product.

“Food waste is always something to be concerned about,” he added. “If there’s edible food out there we want to rescue it and get it to people who need it, and we know that farmers and producers feel the same way.”

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