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National Farm to School Network

News

News Release: Farm to School Act of 2021 Introduced in House

NFSN Staff Thursday, March 11, 2021

Yesterday, a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders introduced the Farm to School Act of 2021 (H.R. 1768) which will support our nation’s schools, farmers and communities in building back equitably from the Covid-19 pandemic. The bill, sponsored by Representative Stacey Plaskett (D-VI), Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Representative Alma Adams (D-NC), will expand funding for and programmatic scope of the highly successful USDA Farm to School Grant Program, while also ensuring that more communities – specifically those serving racially diverse and high-need student populations, as well as engaging with beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers – have a competitive opportunity to benefit from this valuable program.

When the pandemic began, school nutrition professionals, educators and local food producers – the people who make farm to school work – were some of the very first community members to step up and ensure the ongoing care and support of children and families. The measures included in the Farm to School Act of 2021 will give them much-needed resources to continue their work as we emerge from the pandemic. Furthermore, the bill’s emphasis on ensuring equitable access to this important grant program will help those who have been most impacted by the pandemic, including Native and tribal communities, racially diverse communities, and early care and education sites. There has never been a better time to build on the successes of this program.

The USDA Farm to School Grant Program provides funds on a competitive basis to schools, farmers, nonprofits, and local, state and tribal government entities to help schools procure local foods for school meals and to support activities like school gardens, hands-on science lessons, and new food taste tests. The program was originally funded as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and includes $5 million in annual mandatory funding.

Since the program’s inception in 2013, USDA has awarded over $52 million through Farm to School Grants, funding a total of 719 projects across all 50 States, the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico, reaching almost 21 million students in 47,000 schools. In recent years, the program has benefited from temporary funding boosts through annual appropriations. The Farm to School Act of 2021 would allow more of these impactful projects to be realized by:
  • Increasing annual mandatory funding to $15 million and increase the maximum grant award to $250,000,
  • Prioritizing grant proposals that engage beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers and serve high-need schools,
  • Fully including early care and education sites, summer food service sites and after school programs, and
  • Increasing access among Native and tribal schools to traditional foods, especially from tribal producers.

Read our full press release here.
Learn more about the Farm to School Act of 2021 here.

Statements from the Farm to School Act of 2021's Cosponsors:

Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI): “Millions of students are eating healthier and engaged in food and agriculture education because of the Farm to School Program. It is a commonsense program that benefits children and their families while providing economic opportunities to our farmers. The increased demand for Farm to School programming tells us that more people are beginning to understand the connection between local foods and healthy young minds. I’m proud to introduce this legislation in support of our nation’s schools and local farmers who help improve classroom diets and local economies.”

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Ranking Member, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Food and Drug Administration (FDA): “The Farm to School program feeds kids, teaches kids, inspires kids. What an impactful, nutritious way to connect the farm to the family, enhance regional economic benefit, and promote good health. I am happy to lead the development of the program.”

Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC), Vice Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture: “The Farm to School Grant Program supports healthy students and strengthens our local food systems. The Farm to School Act of 2021 expands participation in this critical program and increases its funding, which is more important than ever as our students, schools and farmers face difficult challenges due to the global pandemic. Teachers, parents, and farmers all know that healthy students are successful students, so I am proud to support the introduction this important legislation.”

Have questions about the Farm to School Act of 2021 or want to learn more about how you can be a farm to school policy advocate? Contact Karen Spangler, Policy Director, at karen@farmtoschool.org.

National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children and resilient farms.

Measures to Support Children, Families & Producers of Color in Drafts of New COVID-19 Relief Bill

NFSN Staff Tuesday, February 23, 2021

By Karen Spangler, NFSN Policy Director

This week, the House and Senate are at work on a new round of relief legislation to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a complex procedural move known as reconciliation, the House and Senate may be able to advance relief and stimulus funds with a narrow majority vote. House Committees have released their portions of the proposal, including the House Committee on Education and Labor, and the House Committee on Agriculture. Included are numerous measures that will support those most in need in our farm to school and early care and education community, including an increase in pandemic EBT (P-EBT) for young children, funds for child care stabilization, and an increase of 15% in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) benefits. In addition, the bill would provide money to purchase directly from producers (such as the Farmers to Families food box program), and to strengthen food supply chain infrastructure and worker protection.

Also included in the proposal from the House Agriculture Committee is a historic measure to provide $4 billion in debt relief and financial support for producers of color with USDA farm loans. An additional $1 billion would address historic and ongoing discrimination in the food system, including oversight for racial equity at USDA, support for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and historically Black land-grant universities, and legal resources for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) producers. This legislative language first debuted in the Senate in the Emergency Relief for Producers of Color Act, introduced by new Senate Ag Committee members Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), as well as committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and longtime farm to school champion Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

The leadership of House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott (D-GA-13) and Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA-2) in including this measure comes at an especially crucial time. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated long-existing inequities in farm policy, and Black and Indigenous communities have suffered disproportionately from the health, economic, and food security effects of the pandemic. A newly-released analysis from Environmental Working Group found that nearly 97 percent of $9.2 billion in pandemic relief direct payments went to white producers as of October 2020, with white farmers on average receiving four times more than the average Black farmer. Clearly, the status quo is not enough to provide real, equitable relief to BIPOC producers struggling during this pandemic. Debt forgiveness is a direct and immediate measure that government can take to address the structural injustices that are still happening.

As the full legislative package makes its way to the House floor this week, and as the Senate takes up relief measures, National Farm to School Network urges policymakers to prioritize the urgent need for bold measures such as this one during and after the current crisis.

Farm to School & ECE Support in New Pandemic Relief and FY 2021 Spending Bill

NFSN Staff Tuesday, December 22, 2020

By Karen Spangler, NFSN Policy Director

In a late-night sprint on Monday, Congress passed a combined bill of $900 billion in coronavirus relief aid and $1.4 trillion in spending for fiscal year (FY) 2021. While the need for economic, nutrition, and public health relief is far greater than the scope of the relief provided, it nevertheless contains some wins for farm to school and farm to early care and education (ECE), and much-needed funds for our farmers and communities.

Highlights of the COVID relief measures include:
  • Relief for CACFP providers, replacing 55 percent of the total reimbursement funding lost for each claiming month from April 2020 to June 2020, plus half of March 2020.
  • A similar relief measure for schools participating in federal Child Nutrition Programs.
  • Expanded Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) to all income-eligible children under six years old.
  • Relief funding for a number of local food systems programs, and reduction of the matching funds requirements (note: unfortunately this does not include the Farm to School Grant Program) and measures to better tailor direct agricultural payments to specialty producers.

The FY 2021 spending bill also contains a number of big wins for farm to school and farm to ECE: 
  • The highest-ever level of funding for the Farm to School Grant Program – $17 million total!
  • $500,000 allocated for a regional institute to disseminate farm to school and ECE research and technical assistance.
  • $2 million in Centers for Disease Control (CDC) funding for farm to ECE work.
  • Robust funding for other CDC programs promoting nutrition and addressing racial health equity, such as $63 million in funding for the Racial and Ethnic Aspects of Community Health (REACH) grants, of which $22 million is set aside for Native communities. 
Update: These measures were passed in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which was signed into law on December 27, 2020.

Our 116th Congress Policy Wins

NFSN Staff Monday, December 14, 2020

By Karen Spangler, Policy Director

2020 has been a tumultuous year for so many of us – educators, farmers and fishers, school nutrition professionals, and of course children and families affected by the pandemic and its impact on the economy. While these crises are ongoing and there is still much work to be done, we want to take a moment to recognize the hard-won progress that our movement has made, together, in federal farm to school and farm to early care and education (ECE) policy during the 116th Congress. In particular, there have been numerous important marker bills introduced in both the US House and Senate since this Congress convened in January 2019, including:

  • Small Farm to School Act: Would create an eight state pilot program of local procurement incentives providing extra reimbursement under the National School Lunch Program.
  • Farm to School Act: Would expand funding and eligibility for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program, and increase equity by prioritizing grants that engage diverse farmers, serve high-need schools, and increase partnerships between tribal schools and tribal producers.
  • Kids Eat Local Act: Would allow schools to require local procurement for child nutrition programs, rather than including geographic preference as just one factor in the overall bid.
  • Universal School Meals Program Act of 2019: Would establish free breakfast, lunch, and summer food service available to all children in school and early care and education, including an incentive to procure at least 30% of ingredients locally.
  • Justice for Black Farmers Act: Would address discriminatory practices in USDA policies, including establishing independent civil rights oversight, creating a land grant system for Black farmers, and banning anti-competitive practices in livestock and poultry.
  • School Food Modernization Act: Would provide grants, loan guarantees, and technical assistance to help school nutrition professionals have the infrastructure and equipment they need to prepare meals with more fresh and unprocessed ingredients.
  • Improving Training for School Food Service Workers Act: Would require that USDA-provided training for local food service personnel take place during regularly scheduled, paid hours, and use hands-on methods whenever possible.
  • Food and Nutrition Education Act: Would establish a pilot program to support local education agencies to hire full-time food and nutrition educators, school gardens, and other hands-on nutrition learning opportunities for students.
  • Local School Foods Expansion Act: Would establish the Pilot Project for Procurement of Unprocessed Fresh Fruits and Vegetables as a permanent program and expand it to more states.
You can read more about each of these bills and see who co-sponsored them here.

Despite the difficulties of this year, these are shining bright spots that can set us up for significant federal policy opportunities with the new 117th Congress in 2021. To make that happen, your legislators need to hear from you that these marker bills are important!

ACTION: Take 2 minutes to scan the list of co-sponsors of these bills, identify if any are your members of Congress, and give them a call at the Capitol switchboard [202-224-3121] to thank them for their leadership. Then, take a second to thank yourself and your fellow farm to school advocates for your own hard work that has laid the foundation for these policy wins to be possible.

When the 117th Congress begins on January 3, 2021, we will need legislative champions to advance the priorities of farm to school and farm to ECE, including re-introducing bills like these and passing the critical COVID-19 relief measures our communities need. (Read more about the COVID-19 federal measures we’re pushing for here.) Your voices have never been more necessary to thank federal farm to school champions and forge ahead on policies towards a just food system.

P.S. Your donations make our policy work possible and will help us continue important farm to school and ECE advocacy with the next Congress. Will you make an end of year, tax-deductible donation today to support our ongoing policy efforts? Thank you!

2021 Transition Recommendations for USDA

NFSN Staff Monday, November 23, 2020


By Karen Spangler, NFSN Policy Director

The transition to a new Presidential administration comes with a change in leadership at important federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This moment can be an inflection point, where farm to school and farm to early care and education (ECE) advocates can call for new leadership in how policies and programs are administered. While the federal Farm to School Grant Program has escaped major regulatory attacks over the last four years, it relies on and supports other programs within USDA that have suffered from agency actions. A new administration, in addition to undoing harm, has the opportunity to elevate farm to school and ECE as a proven strategy aligned with USDA’s multi-faceted mission of nourishing children and families and providing economic opportunities for farmers and communities. Additionally, the following recommendations are steps to advance the strategic goal of the National Farm to School Network: By 2025, 100% of communities will hold power in a racially just food system.

Actions for the new administration specific to farm to school and ECE:
  • Withdraw the proposed rule on Broad Based Categorical Eligibility, and revisit USDA rules that may negatively impact participation in school meals. Any attempts to restrict school meal or CACFP participation should be corrected.
  • Develop more formal guidance for school food authorities (SFAs) on using a values-aligned procurement framework (in addition to strictly geographically local preference) for RFPs and the bidding process.
  • Initiate agency legal research into statutory barriers to further values-aligned purchasing.
  • Research USDA authority to issue waivers for greater cash in lieu of USDA commodity foods, if SFAs applied with proposals to increase their local and/or values-aligned purchasing.
  • Initiate research on increasing transparency within the USDA Foods supply chain, and assess what would be needed to apply more stringent conservation compliance and fair labor standards within that supply network.
  • Research barriers that prevent producers from participating as a vendor in DoD Fresh procurement. Recommend policy changes if necessary to reduce barriers for small local and regional producers, to increase the ability of SFAs to procure locally through DoD Fresh.
  • Continue and expand the AMS and FNS administered successful Pilot Project for the Procurement of Unprocessed Fruit and Vegetables, an alternative to USDA Foods and DoD Fresh for USDA purchases, authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill.
  • Conduct research on administrative and overhead savings provided by pursuing a universal approach to school meal and child nutrition programs. Additionally, assess the potential economic impact of local and values-aligned procurement for the farm economy as part of such an approach.
  • Identify regulatory and other barriers related to developing farm to school programs, including direct and indirect compliance costs of production and marketing to schools and early care and education programs, barriers to local and regional market access for small-scale production, barriers to funding projects which might otherwise be eligible for a federal Farm to School Grant, barriers to funding Tribal projects under farm to school programs, and barriers to local and regional market access for Tribal farmers and ranchers.

Actions for the new administration for a just food system:
  • Resume the farm labor prevailing wage survey, and ensure that H2-A agricultural workers receive the very modest protections the program currently has.
  • Take immediate action to protect food and farm workers at risk from the COVID-19 pandemic, and enforce occupational safety and health rules in our food system.
  • Restore the antitrust and competitive practices protections in the livestock and poultry industry, which are rife with unfair practices that exploit producers and lead to more consolidation in our food system.
  • Rebuild the personnel capacity of USDA’s Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to collect, analyze, and release important data.
  • Work with small producers to understand and reduce the regulatory barriers of compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act.
  • Scrutinize programs that have been authorized, but not funded, to include in the President's budget request. Programs such as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account, which would provide matching savings for beginning producers, require no additional authorizing authority and could get funds directly into the hands of producers who need it most.

A PDF version of these recommendations is available here. For more information, please contact Karen Spangler, NFSN Policy Director, at karen@farmtoschool.org or 248-535-3709.

A Fresh Take on Dietary Guidelines Points to Need for Farm to School

NFSN Staff Monday, August 31, 2020
By Karen Spangler, NFSN Policy Director

In August, National Farm to School Network submitted comments on the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee, which reviews new scientific evidence about diet's impact on health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), reviewed by an advisory committee every five years, provide the foundation for the federal government’s recommendations to the public about eating patterns that lead to better health outcomes. 

The DGA are crucially important because their recommendations to promote or limit certain types of foods inform the nutrition standards for federal programs, including child nutrition programs.The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 ensured that school meal program standards are aligned with the DGA. Over the last ten years, as school menus have changed to meet the DGA standards, school meals have included more fruit, more servings and varieties of vegetables, more whole grains, and less saturated fat and sodium. A recent summary of research from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation highlights the impact of these changes on short-term and long-term health and educational performance, particularly for low-income students. 

This review of the scientific evidence from the Advisory Committee offers recommendations to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) for updating the existing dietary guidelines. We’re excited by these new areas of focus, and in our comments have highlighted for the Secretaries that farm to school and farm to early care and education (ECE) activities can help achieve these recommendations. 

Focus on Overall Dietary Pattern
The report notes a dietary approach that promotes holistic, lifelong positive overall dietary quality leads to better long-term health. The Committee comments that, in general, healthy dietary patterns emphasize vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and seafood, all of which are currently under-consumed by Americans. Farm to school and farm to ECE activities offer proven strategies to increase immediate fruit and vegetable consumption. Research shows participation in farm to school and ECE activities increases children’s fruit and vegetable consumption by up to 1.3 servings per day. As the Committee notes, the flexibility within these patterns offers opportunities to incorporate traditional and culturally relevant foods, which connect children with their local food system and strengthen cultural and social connections in the community. Similarly, exploring local and seasonal foods through nutrition education and food service encourages kids to meet the dietary objectives recommended by the Committee within an accessible, culturally relevant frame.

Recognition of Early Childhood as a Key Developmental Period
For the first time, the Committee focused its review on nutrition in the earliest stages of life, concluding that this period of development is crucial to health later in life. The food environment in early childhood impacts long-term health directly, through key nutrients, and indirectly through shaping taste preferences and food choices. We know that farm to ECE activities can help with both of these aspects. In addition to local food procurement, educational and hands-on activities also  increase students’ willingness to choose healthier options at school meals and influence healthier food behaviors throughout their lifespan and in home environments.

Health Implications of Racial Injustice in the Food System
Commendably, the Committee notes the persistent health problems that food insecurity presents for our country. In addition to calling on USDA and HHS to support programs that provide low-income people with the resources to meet DGA, in our comments, we highlighted the historic and ongoing racial injustice in our food system that leads to these health inequities. We knew before the Covid-19 pandemic and recent Black Lives Matter protests that our food system is rife with racial inequities and that the current public health crisis has only exacerbated them. Our nation’s economy and our agricultural system are built on a foundation of racism and exploitation. These inequities in our food system contribute to economic and health inequalities: the same people that provide labor in our food system often can’t afford nourishing food for themselves and their families. As a result, Black, Latinx, and Native American communities are significantly more likely to face hunger and food insecurity than White individuals, and to suffer from diet-related diseases like diabetes. The Committee chose not to review scientific evidence on how the food environment and the overall food system impact health, which present a major shortcoming of their final report. Food system factors, including systemic racism and environmental justice, are key to dietary health.

The next step is for USDA and HHS to consider the evidence reviewed by the Committee and turn this scientific review into actionable recommendations for federal programs and for the general public. We have encouraged USDA and HHS to consider farm to school activities as a proven strategy for helping child nutrition programs meet these goals, and to foster healthier lives for our kids and communities. 


Read our full comments here. 

Action Alert: Senate Must Do More For Kids, Farmers & Schools

NFSN Staff Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Late yesterday afternoon, the Senate released their latest set of COVID-19 relief bills, a $1 trillion bundle of legislation covering business aid, money for schools and agricultural aid funding. Included in the legislation is $70 billion for K-12 schools ($46 billion is reserved for costs of reopening in-person school this fall), tax credits and Payroll Protection Program Extensions, and $20 billion in agricultural aid funding with no additional guardrails to correct the shortcomings of USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (see here and here). While we’re glad that Senators have recognized that our schools and farmers are in urgent need of critical funding support, this proposed legislation from the Senate falls far short of targeting the actual needs of our kids, farmers, educators and school nutrition professionals. 

We need targeted policies that match the scale of this current crisis. Specifically, we need policies that directly support Black, Indigenous and small scale farmers, early care and education providers, and school food service operators – they all play a critical role in feeding and caring for our communities, and especially so during this pandemic. That’s why, as the Senate and House work out the details of this next round of COVID-19 relief, we’re calling on policymakers to: 
  • Fully fund universal free school meals, informed by these values, this next school year. 
  • Provide immediate funding support to early care and education centers.
  • Create a set-aside small business relief fund for farmers of color.
  • Waive the non-federal match requirement for local food and agriculture programs, including the USDA Farm to School Grant Program, for the next two years.
We are pleased to see some of these bold solutions already coming from the champions in the House and Senate. Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-NY) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) yesterday introduced the Small Farm to School Act, a bipartisan bill to pilot increased reimbursement for local procurement. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has included targeted support for Black, Indigenous and other farmers of color who grow vegetables and fruit, and a waiver of the non-federal match for USDA Farm to School Grants, in his Local Food Assistance and Resilient Markets Act. Bills like these should be leading this round of COVID-19 relief from Congress. 

It’s essential that your Senators hear from you about what your community needs right now to support kids, educators, farmers and school nutrition professionals. This legislation is expected to move quickly, so don’t wait - take this quick 5 minute action right now!

Call your Senators TODAY and tell them you want to see more support for kids, farmers and educators in your community included in the HEALS Act. Here’s how: Step 1: Call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Step 2: Ask to be connected with your Senator's office. Not sure who your Senators are? (You have 2!) Give the Switchboard your zip code and they can connect you to the correct offices. Step 3: Leave a message for your Senators like this: Hi, my name is ____ and I’m a constituent and a ____ [parent, teacher, farmer, etc.]. I’d like to ask [your Senator’s name] to advocate for the following things to be included in next round of COVID-19 relief legislation:Fully fund universal free school meals this next school year. Provide immediate funding support to early care and education centers.Create a set-aside small business relief fund for farmers of color. Support the Local FARM Act (S. 4140). These issues matter to me because ____ [tell your story!]. Thank you!

Already made your two calls? Sign-on to endorse our COVID-19 Federal Policy Platform that includes more measures we think the Senate must include to ensure immediate relief for the people most impacted by this crisis, while building towards longer-term policies that strengthen a resilient, just food system.

If you work for a government agency or university and cannot lobby, you can still make a difference! Instead of calling your Senators to discuss specific policies, share general information about farm to school experiences and needs in your community. Sharing information is not lobbying - it’s education, which we can all do! 

Taking action right now, while this relief bill is in discussion, is especially crucial.  Make your calls, sign-on to the platform, and forward this message to a friend. THANK YOU for taking a few minutes out of your day to make your voice heard. 

The Last Mile

NFSN Staff Wednesday, July 22, 2020

By Karen Spangler, Policy Director, and Erika Rincon, Program and Policy Assistant

Whether you’re a farmer, food bank or school serving meals to-go during the COVID-19 pandemic, the last mile is frequently the hardest equation to solve. It’s one that the USDA “Farmers to Families” program has aimed to cover, with $3 billion in contracts with vendors to provide nonprofits with “truck to trunk” food distribution. But as food banks and other community organizations apply for deliveries from the approved vendors, that last mile – getting the delivered food into the hands of the hungry – is turning out to be a considerable barrier. The CEO at the Food Bank of the Rockies says that distributing food donated through the Farmers to Families program is costing $40,000 per month just for transportation. Since May 15, the San Antonio Food Bank has spent more than $83,000 to store and distribute the food they’ve received from an event company that was awarded the USDA contract for the region.

Like food banks, schools all over the country have drastically altered how they feed kids during this pandemic, pivoting to outdoor distribution, grab-and-go pre-packaged food and social distancing in their kitchens. But the last mile for students – between food distribution sites and their front doors –  can be the hardest. In the first few weeks of distribution this spring, some schools saw only a fraction of their usual free and reduced-price eligible students showing up to collect meals, sometimes attributing this to lack of transportation. So some schools mobilized their dormant fleet of school buses and drivers to deliver meals to distribution locations throughout their districts.

For low-income families who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or who have received Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) to feed their kids while school meals are unavailable, the expansion of online EBT purchases offers the potential to make purchases without risking exposure. However, in most states this expedited pilot includes only a few big retailers, leaving out local and regional producers who could serve this market. Moreover, online EBT customers do not have the option for pickup in many states, but delivery fees can’t be covered by SNAP or P-EBT funds (which must be used only for food). Immediate measures to help smaller retailers deliver during the pandemic, as well as long-term solutions to make sure all eligible retailers can accept online SNAP, have been proposed in Congress but not yet passed.  

For those who are able to stay home, delivery services spare customers exposure from going into grocery stores with long lines or tight spaces. But the increasing reliance on convenient delivery means that the last mile – from the warehouse, grocery store, or restaurant – is served by workers who are risking exposure. 

Food banks and local food pantries also face their own challenges in the last mile, the miles that patrons have to travel to access these distribution sites. A recent survey by Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, reported that 40% of clients are getting help from a food bank for the first time. For these new customers, first identifying and then traveling to a distribution location can be challenging, especially when avoiding public transportation. Some food banks have undertaken mapping projects to link customers with resources and help them find out what’s available in their area. 

Farmers who relied on institutional sales to restaurants or schools have been left with a surplus in their fields, but for them, the last mile to the food bank is expensive and time-consuming. The cost of harvest, transportation, and navigating the patchwork of operating hours of local food pantries – often narrow windows of time, constrained by volunteers (many of whom are elderly at at high-risk) and a lack of storage capability at the distribution site – means extra difficulty in getting excess produce to its destination. New York state is trying to solve this problem through $5,000 refundable tax credits to farmers for donating crops, and $25 million in funds for food banks to buy from local and regional producers and invest in storage capacity. This approach is faster, more flexible, and more cost-effective than the federal Farmers to Families approach.

The “last mile” is often an afterthought in government programs, as evidenced by the Farmers to Families dilemma. COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to evaluate our supply chain and the security of our food system. During and after this public health crisis, public investments should increase the capacity of local and regional food systems to bridge that last mile. 

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