WASHINGTON (AP) — The Department of Agriculture is sending $1 billion to the country's food bank networks, seeking to expand the reach of the system and revamp the way food banks acquire and distribute aid.
The funding, announced Friday, comes half from the American Rescue Plan COVID stimulus bill and half from standard congressional appropriations. Like other aspects of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better initiative, the food bank plan openly seeks to use COVID recovery as a chance to reform a support system whose flaws were exposed by the pandemic.
"We must do more to improve partnerships and infrastructure that power emergency food distribution to ensure the food provided is nutritious and supports a better food system,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
Vilsack said the upcoming reforms would seek to "apply lessons learned from food assistance activities early in the pandemic to improve how the USDA purchases food and supports on-the-ground organizations.”
That includes an emphasis on purchasing food from local producers, working with “socially disadvantaged farmers” and extending infrastructure to better serve rural and underserved communities.
“This is a big deal. A billion dollars is a lot of money,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, calling it “a huge shot in the arm” for the food security sector.
When the COVID-19 pandemic brought parts of the American economy to a halt last spring, food banks became an immediate anchor of direct support, ranging from large existing charities to modest DIY neighborhood pop-ups.
Berg said food banks have a particularly wide reach because they often serve people who might not be eligible for full government benefits or may simply be reluctant to fully engage with the government benefits system.
And the new cashflow into America's food bank system comes at a particularly good time. As the country emerges from the pandemic, Berg said “there's donor fatigue in the whole non-profit sector.”
Feeding America, which operates 200 food banks across the country, said the need for food assistance increased 55% over the past year. The organization estimates that approximately 42 million people could still experience food insecurity in 2021 due in part to ongoing COVID-19 economic fallout.