Bill to reshape and revive Families Food Box Program introduced by powerful House Democrat

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The Fresh Produce Procurement Reform Act, legislation to increase USDA’s procurement of fresh fruits and vegetables, is being introduced in Congress to the industry’s delight by one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. House.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, has introduced the bill that would require USDA to partner with growers, distributors, and food hubs to provide fresh, U.S.-grown fruits and vegetables to community organizations like schools, local food pantries, and youth organizations while prioritizing socially disadvantaged farmers and entities, regional food inequities, and local and regional food systems.

“Along with creating the greatest public health and economic crisis in a generation, the COVID pandemic exploited our country’s nutrition crisis and highlighted the need to build resiliency in local and regional food systems,” said Rep. DeLauro.

“Throughout 2020, USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program succeeded in connecting healthy fruits and vegetables from our nation’s farmers to hungry families who needed it the most. I saw gratitude on the faces of so many families as I helped distribute boxes from Ceccarelli’s Harrison Hill Farm at Common Ground High School in my district. Many of them would go on to say that never before had they had access to such high-quality, fresh produce.”

“That is why I was disappointed by Secretary Vilsack’s decision to end the program,”  DeLauro added.

“In my view, the program should have been strengthened and continued as a way to get healthier foods to families and as an investment in our local producers and specialty crop growers, who traditionally fall outside of USDA’s commodity supports. The bill would abandon USDA’s low-cost bid model, and instead, require priority be given to local food systems and regional inequities. This bill is an important first step in leveraging USDA food purchasing to drive important reforms across our food system.”

In addition, the powerful chair of the House Appropriations Committee sits on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. DeLauro also chairs Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittees, where she helps oversee our nation’s investments in education, health, and employment.  DeLauro also chairs the House Food Safety Caucus.

Sonny  Perdue, the immediate past Secretary of Agriculture, advanced the Farmers to Family program in response to the pandemic under CARES Act authorization with Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) funding.

Vilsak terminated Farmers to Family effective April 30. He said USDA fresh produce boxes would be delivered through this month, September 2021,  with funding from the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

The Trump administration program had USDA purchasing American grown produce, meat, and dairy products for food boxes that were distributed nationwide to people in need. It helped the fresh produce industry, which had its traditional markets hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. If adopted, the DeLauro bill would continue the delivery of produce boxes to people in need into the new federal fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Just last week, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report calling on USDA and Congress to “establish a greater focus on procurement of fresh fruits and vegetables in USDA Food Distribution Programs” as a way to increase diet quality and meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

DeLauro’s announcement comes in conjunction with this week’s United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Conference. The lobbying organization for fresh produce growers was started in 1904.

“We know that demand is high for fresh fruits and vegetables at emergency feeding sites around the country, yet USDA’s procurement infrastructure is not built to purchase and distribute a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Tom Stenzel, President and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association.

“We thank Representative DeLauro for recognizing the extraordinary opportunity to address nutrition insecurity by tapping the existing fresh produce supply chain to meet these community needs.”

In a statement, United Fresh Produce (UFP) said the DeLauro bill “will give USDA the tools it needs to fully utilize the fresh produce supply chain to get fruits and vegetables to those in need.”

UFP further said the legislation establishes “a new mechanism” for USDA to purchase a wide variety of fresh U.S. fruits and vegetables for distribution to those in need in partnership with nonprofit community organizations.

Along with United Fresh, the Fresh Produce Procurement Act is supported by a broad coalition of agriculture, nutrition, and public health, as well as community-serving organizations that include Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the American Heart Association, Save the Children, The Common Market, National Center for Appropriate Technology, the Community Action Partnership of Orange County, CA, and the Des Moines Area Religious Council Food Pantry.

“Even prior to the pandemic, local Boys & Girls Clubs across the country operated on the frontlines, helping address the impacts of food insecurities in communities. During COVID-19, we’ve seen this issue significantly intensify, making it even harder for kids and families in America to thrive,” said Jim Clark, President, and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of America. “Each day, I am in awe of the innovative ways Boys & Girls Clubs and other youth-serving organizations have stepped up to distribute food, providing access to nutritious meals and fresh produce. We applaud Congresswoman DeLauro once again, for championing critical anti-hunger initiatives through the Fresh Produce Procurement Act of 2021. Our Clubs stand ready and committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure youth have their essential needs met, so they can focus on school, developing new skills, and having fun.”

“A silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has highlighted the resilience and capacity of community-based food systems to respond to emergencies in innovative ways,” said Wes King, Senior Policy Specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “For years, small farmers and advocates have emphasized the role that community-based food systems play in providing those in need with access to healthy and culturally appropriate fresh fruits and vegetables. The Fresh Produce Procurement Reform Act of 2021 seeks to incorporate this reality and the lessons learned through USDA pandemic response efforts into ongoing efforts at the department to address nutrition and food insecurity. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) applauds Representative Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, for introducing this timely legislation and looks forward to working with her and Congress to advance this important proposal.”

“We are pleased to support Congresswoman DeLauro in her work to improve access to nutritious foods for children and families in rural areas of America,” said Trevor Moe, Senior Director at Save the Children. “87 percent of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are rural. Current nutrition programs underserve rural America. This bill is a step toward more nutritious food systems that rural families need.”

“Relying on local supply chains to support emergency feeding programs presents an opportunity to center quality, cultural relevance, and nutrition — facets not often associated with emergency feeding responses,” said Haile Johnston, co-founder of The Common Market, a nonprofit regional food distributor responsible for delivering nearly 1 million local food boxes to communities across the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions in response to COVID-19 last year. “Offering fresh, nutrient-dense, and culturally appropriate foods is critical to an equitable emergency response effort, providing stability and dignity for recipients during a time of great uncertainty and loss.”

“In our community, unemployment is still more than twice the pre-pandemic level, two million people in our state recently lost all unemployment benefits, the eviction moratorium will soon expire, personal debt is at an all-time high, and the inflationary cost of food is impacting low-income families most dramatically,” said Mark Lowry, Director of Community Action Partnership of Orange County, CA. “Although the demand for food assistance remains high, attention directed toward meeting this need has faded.  Right-sized support from the federal government, our county government, and local cities early in our COVID disaster response have largely evaporated. We need to repeat that COVID is not over and the financial impacts of COVID are certainly not over. Congresswoman DeLauro has long been a champion of the families who we serve, and we applaud her leadership in working to secure additional fresh fruits and vegetables to satisfy the nutritional needs of vulnerable families across America.”

“Fresh produce remains one of, if not the highest demand product in our food pantry network,” said Matt Unger, CEO of the Des Moines Area Religious Council Food Pantry.While a lot of programming has helped folks meet their nutrition needs through the pandemic, several of those programs have ended or are coming to an end. Unfortunately, all the issues that led to the food insecurity problem we face nationally before the pandemic still exist.  As those facing food insecurities aim to meet their nutrition needs, we know barriers to accessing fresh produce are among the most difficult they face, making a program like this, which does not exist today, a critical avenue of support.”

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