Washington Insider-- Monday

Food Shortages Intensify

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Senate Sends Caribbean Trade Measure To Trump

The Senate approved legislation to extend the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act until September 30, 2030, under the Caribbean Trade Basin Economic Recovery Act.

Eight countries currently qualify under the program, but Haiti has emerged as the biggest beneficiary because of the trade preferences as well as other U.S. programs designed to build the country's economy. Congress has yet to act on another expiring trade preference program, the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) that expires December 31.

The program offers tariff breaks on 3,500 products imported from nearly 120 countries.

OMB Finalizes Review of USDA Rule To Make Changes To CSP To Reflect 2018 Farm Bill Changes

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has completed its review of USDA's final rule to rule to make changes to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to put changes in place from the 2018 Farm Bill.

The changes include confirming validity of CSP contracts entered into prior to 2018 Farm Bill enactment, it authorizes the ability to extend contracts that were due to expire on or before December 31, 2019, and authorizes renewal of such contracts through the new CSP authority and simplifies CSP ranking criteria and addresses other issues raised in 110 comments that were submitted on the interim rule on CSP.


Washington Insider: Food Shortages Intensify

The Washington Post is reporting this week that U.S. food supplement programs are facing large shortages of supplies over the next 12 months. As a result, food banks have seen record increases in need even as donations and volunteers dwindle, the Washington Post said.

The report focused on the tens of millions of Americans who have turned to a local food bank for help after becoming newly food insecure because of the pandemic and its fallout. About 10% of American adults, 22.3 million, reported they sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat within the past week, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent Household Pulse Survey fielded between Aug. 19 and 31. “That is up from 18 million before March 13,” the Post said.

The report includes interviews with participants in several programs, including Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks – which projects a 6 billion to 8 billion meal shortfall in the next 12 months. That deficit could be magnified as federal food assistance programs are scheduled to expire in the coming weeks and months.

The Feeding America analysis estimates the total need for charitable food over the next year will reach 17 billion pounds, more than three times last year's effort.

The Post focuses on several program participants. For example, one said that, at 41, he's been through quite a bit. His wife has a disability and he has been the primary breadwinner for a number of years. He has suffered from anxiety and depression for some time, once taking unpaid leave for a hospitalization. Since losing his job, he has liquidated his 401(k), used his $1,200 stimulus check to pay down some bills and opted into a special payment plan with his mortgage lender. But even with the extra $600 per week in unemployment the Cares Act provided, things have been tight.

The article points out a change in the food business that “affects all income levels.” One participant in the charitable distribution program in Boston commented that “before the pandemic customers walked through and picked out their own items. Requirements for social distancing and contactless handoffs now require volunteers to fill prefabricated boxes, a more laborious process. And volunteerism continues to be way down.”

In a normal year, Greater Boston Food Bank has 24,000 volunteers available to help shoppers – about 460 each week. Now, they get 100 to 150 per week.

These challenges to food assistance are not unique to the Boston area, the report says. Still, “I have never seen any circumstances as bizarre and complicated as what we're seeing right now,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, a food bank and anti-hunger advocacy group in Milwaukee.” She says the pandemic has complicated food distribution, especially for those who don't have transportation or who live in remote areas. Food banks alone cannot be the answer, she says.

Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Feeding America, says that a Feeding America survey launched Sept. 15 and concluded Sept. 28, member food banks reported seeing an average 56 percent increase in demand. In August, Feeding America network food banks distributed an estimated 593 million meals, an increase of 64 percent from a typical pre-pandemic month.

Fitzgerald says natural disasters add additional stress to regional food assistance programs. About 5 million schoolchildren live in a household where people can't afford sufficient food, says Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

There were about 6 million more participants in SNAP, the food assistance program formerly known as food stamps, in May and June compared with February, says Joseph Llobrera, director of research for food assistance policy for CBPP.

Advocates say that the emergency rule on benefit maximums have alleviated hardship for many, nearly 40 percent of households already received the SNAP maximum benefit and thus received no increased benefit. Sixteen million low-income people, including 7 million children, got no additional assistance, according to economists at CBPP. Fitzgerald and other advocates have strongly urged a 15% increase in SNAP.

Shortfalls in these programs put extra pressure on food banks during the pandemic. And the effects of these deficits are not just short-term, says Megan Sandel, co-director of the Grow Clinic for Children at Boston Medical Center. She says she has seen a 40 percent increase in her caseload, with over two-thirds reporting food insecurity.

In the past, Sandel says, it wasn't unusual for low-income Americans to have to stretch a dollar at the end of the month. “Now they are running out of their food budget the second or third week of the month. Parents are going back into the kitchen at mealtime so kids won't notice that parents aren't eating themselves,” she says.

“The larger food banks, like Boston and Houston, are experiencing greater philanthropy, but smaller ones haven't had as much success,” she says.

So, we will see. There is widespread support for food assistance programs of many kinds, but the system is vast and complicated. These programs benefit both rural and urban families and should be watched closely as they are adjusted to match growing needs, Washington Insider believes.

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