Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star: Abigail Spanberger holds roundtable to discuss nutrition portion of upcoming Farm Bill

FREDERICKSBURG FREE LANCE-STAR, ADELE UPHAUS

Just a few days ago, the food pantry at Chancellor Baptist Church served 325 people in one day — the largest number in its history.

Before the pandemic, the pantry used to serve about 150 people per day. Now, said Tracey Bailey, who represented the pantry at a roundtable discussion about federal emergency food programs with Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the “new normal” low number is 240.

“The people we see are in need,” Bailey said. “People don’t want to stand in that line and wait unless they are in need.”

Chancellor Baptist Church’s food pantry is a community program, but one third to one half of all the food it distributes comes from the federal government’s TEFAP program, Bailey said.

TEFAP is an acronym for The Emergency Food Assistance Program. Through TEFAP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchases nutritious, high-quality food, often directly from farms, and makes it available to state distributing agencies, usually food banks, which then distribute the food to local organizations and then to the public.

“We couldn’t do what we do without the (Fredericksburg Regional) food bank,” Bailey told Spanberger at the roundtable, which was held at the regional food bank’s new location in the Fredericksburg Industrial Park.

TEFAP is funded through the nutrition title of the Farm Bill, which Congress reauthorizes every five years.

2023 is a Farm Bill year, and members of the House and Senate agriculture committees are beginning to discuss what the bill will cover.

Nutrition programs authorized by the Farm Bill — which include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in addition to TEFAP and other anti-food-insecurity programs — comprise 76% of the bill’s mandatory spending, according to a November 2022 analysis by the Congressional Research Service.

Spanberger, who is a member of the House Agriculture Committee, held the roundtable to gather input from stakeholders about what can be improved in future versions of the programs.

Panelists included Eddie Oliver, director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks; Christen Gallik, director of social services for Fredericksburg; Cassie Edner, director of Virginia Hunger Solutions; nonprofit director and former SNAP recipient Shawnte Brown; and Terry Dodson, commodity supplemental food program director for the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank.

Spanberger said there is “a desire to bring (the amount spent on nutrition assistance programs) down” among some of her colleagues in Congress.

She said a common argument is that community-based programs such as church food pantries can take the place of federal assistance programs, but as Bailey said, those community programs rely on TEFAP.

Another misperception pointed out by panelists is that families enrolled in SNAP — which provides nutrition assistance to eligible, low-income individuals and households via a monthly allotment and is the largest federal nutrition assistance program, according to the USDA — are no longer incentivized to work and support themselves.

The reality is that SNAP is underutilized, Oliver said. Three out of 4 people eligible for SNAP are not enrolled, he said, often because they do not know they are eligible.

In addition, many working people, including active-duty military personnel, rely on SNAP, Spanberger said.

The program gives families one less thing to worry about so they can concentrate on finding a path back to work or pursue education towards a better-paying job.

“SNAP is a work-enabling program,” Oliver said.

Spanberger said her main takeaways from the roundtable are that there needs to be more education about SNAP, both for those who might be eligible and for the community in general; that it needs to be easier for farm-fresh produce to get to consumers and for producers, often a low-income population themselves, to be part of the “food safety net discussion;” and that food assistance programs have transportation, logistics and storage problems that need attention.

She said she has been excited to work on a farm bill since entering Congress in 2019.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment,” Spanberger said. “I’m committed to protecting these programs.

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