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  • Writer's pictureGil Zepeda

Federal funding can’t combat food insecurity unless Congress acts | Opinion

By Stephen Shelley

Special to the Sun Sentinel

Jul 24, 2022 at 8:00 am

Food banks are facing a critical food shortage at a time when food insecurity is surging nationwide as a result of decades-high inflation. A federal program that helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans is a vital link in providing individuals and families with emergency free food assistance, and Congress must step up now to make sure that program can continue providing life-sustaining goods.

It’s estimated that by the end of this year, the supply of food provided by The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) will have shrunk by 340% over the past two years, representing hundreds of millions of pounds of food no longer available to feed hungry persons in need. Unless Congress takes immediate action, the food that powers local food banks will not be sufficient to meet the current need, much less the continually increasing demand.

Compounding this issue are continued private sector supply chain issues and food commodity shortages, which have also substantially reduced food banks’ access to traditional non-federal government food supplies. The result is a perfect storm causing huge reductions in food supply availability — at the same time blue-collar workers and small business owners are facing inflation-driven economic hardships that force them to choose between paying the rent, buying food or putting gas in the car each month.

Stephen Shelley is the chief executive officer of Farm Share.

TEFAP-supported food banks are being heavily relied upon to help these families fill the gap and put food on their tables. To illustrate: At the peak of the COVID pandemic, Farm Share’s output increased by more than 300% on a monthly basis over pre-pandemic times. By the end of last year, that number had declined to about 150% above pre-pandemic levels. However, as inflation increased, so did the demand for our services, and now, Farm Share’s output is back to nearly 200% of pre-pandemic demand levels.

Unfortunately, our supply of food is closer to the lower pre-pandemic levels and continues to decline, leaving a huge gap between what we have and what is needed to feed hungry Floridians. Warehouses that were once full are now nearly empty, with stockpiles depleted and new supplies hard to acquire — forcing a dangerous reduction in food bank services.

It’s not just Farm Share, of course — inflation is directly hurting food banks’ ability to operate everywhere. Diesel fuel prices have nearly doubled, wage costs have sharply increased, and utility costs and general expenses climb ever higher. These unexpected expenses have drastically altered food banks’ operating budgets, and unlike for-profit companies, we cannot pass these increased expenses on to our customers. Therefore, without new funding sources, the only choice will be to cut back on services — which means less food access for the hungry.

Reducing inflation, supply chain backlogs and commodity shortages will no doubt take time, and things will likely get worse before they get better. To ensure that hard-working American families and the less fortunate don’t go hungry amid this serious situation, Congress must immediately increase the volume of food coming through the TEFAP program. This is the only solution that can address this problem in real time and provide a backstop until the world truly returns to normal. On behalf of Farm Share and food banks everywhere, I urge you to contact your Congressman and senator and let them know that addressing food insecurity is important to all of us.

Stephen Shelley is CEO of Farm Share.

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