Column: COVID-19 exposes weak links in our food chain
Of all the inequity and dysfunction exposed by COVID-19, the disconnect in our food chain breaks my heart. The images of farmers having to dump their milk down the drain or till their freshly grown fruits and vegetables back into the soil are devastating.
Farmers have struggled with schools and restaurants closed since the COVID-19 shutdown and with red tape as they try to donate their harvests to hungry families. All the while, cars are lined up for miles outside of food banks across the country. The New Hampshire Food Bank staff told me that at a recent mobile food bank event in the North Country, where they anticipated serving 200 families, more than 600 families arrived in need of food. I spoke with St. Joseph Community Services and its partners who manage the Meals on Wheels program in New Hampshire about the solutions they developed to safely deliver food to hungry seniors living alone. Often the volunteer delivering food is the only person they see each week.
To help address food insecurity during this pandemic, I’ve co-sponsored legislation that will enable the federal government to pay 100% of the costs for programs that allow states and localities to partner with restaurants and nonprofits to prepare nutritious meals for those in need.
Even with all the benefits of modern-day technology and infrastructure, it is still taking far too long to adapt the food supply chain to ensure that these products get from farms to grocery stores and food banks. Congress must develop creative solutions, and I’ve been talking with agricultural leaders around our state to help identify the challenges that are most pressing.
For starters, some farmers and producers will require financial support to get through this crisis and continue producing the food on which we all rely. In March, I was proud to vote in favor of the CARES Act, which included $23.5 billion in direct support to farmers and commodity credit payments. Moreover, this legislation made them eligible for emergency Small Business Administration emergency loans, though I have heard from farmers that the eligibility and application guidelines were at times unclear when it came to which agriculture entities qualified for particular programs. In the update to the SBA programs that Congress passed last month, I worked with my colleagues to ensure that all farms and farm businesses are able to access these critical funding resources.
Generating relationships between food producers and food banks is also essential. Last week, I led a bipartisan letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue regarding the Department of Agriculture’s commitment to spend $3 billion purchasing food from farmers and producers for distribution to food banks and other community organizations.
This is a critical initiative, and I urged the USDA to ensure as much of this food as possible is locally sourced and purchased from small and mid-sized producers. Doing this would not only help family farms survive but also foster invaluable connections between producers and nearby organizations that help feed the hungry.
There have already been some silver linings regarding food during this pandemic.
I have been heartened to hear from some Granite State farmers and producers that they are able to sell more of their goods locally than ever before. There has long been growing public interest in where our food comes from, and this pandemic has made us appreciate how important it is that we have access to food that is grown in our state or region.
To help strengthen this movement, I recently introduced bipartisan legislation that waives matching fund requirements for agriculture businesses that receive funding from the USDA through several grant programs. These fantastic programs help farmers and producers to better market their products locally and diversify their operations through value-added activities, such as a dairy farmer building capacity to make cheese in-house.
However, such programs also require applicants to put up 25%-50% in matching funds in order to receive the grant, and that simply is not feasible for smaller producers struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic. My bill waives these matching fund requirements through 2021, to ensure our food producers can continue to grow and sell more food closer to home.
It is my fervent hope that this trend of buying more of our food locally will continue even after the pandemic ends. We will get through this difficult time by working together with a strong sense of community spirit. In supporting our local farmers and producers, as well as all our friends and neighbors who are food insecure, we are making important investments in our food supply for the long-term.
To learn more about the New Hampshire Food Bank, visit www.nhfoodbank.org. For Meals on Wheels programming in New Hampshire, visit: www.mealsonwheelsnh.org.
To find local food products and producers near you, please visit extension.unh.edu/resource/new-hampshire-farm-products-map.
Annie Kuster, a Democrat, represents New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House.