The US Department of Agriculture buys billions of food to be given to food banks. But the food bank says that SNAP, also known as food stamps, is a better way to get food for people in need.
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Millions of people turn to charity organizations known as food banks today. Donations also go up. And the government has just announced plans to use these organizations to distribute billions of dollars of fresh produce, milk and meat. The people who run this food bank say it’s great, but they’re not the best way to help people get food. Dan NPR Report.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: This was a tough year for Borden Dairy, a milk processor in Dallas. Demand for milk dropped so much with schools and restaurants closed, some farmers had to dump their milk. But a few weeks ago, the company got a big new customer. Tony Sarsam, Borden CEO, said the US Department of Agriculture will pay the company $ 130 million to send 40 million gallons of milk to charitable organizations such as food banks.
TONY SARSAM: That gives purpose and meaning to this organization. This is also important – because we work with so many independent farmers – which gives them stability.
CHARLES: More than one hundred companies got a similar contract this month. The USDA hopes to spend around $ 3 billion on this program in the end. Now Sarsam and all these other companies must find ways to provide their food.
SARSAM: We have to get down to racing and find connections within the charity community that can take our products. Our team here has been calling nonstop.
CHARLES: I mean, is there a possibility that there aren’t enough places out there established that have the capacity to handle it?
SARSAM: There is every opportunity. Cold storage is a big problem, as you can imagine. Not everyone has enough cold storage for that.
CHARLES: So far, he only found takers about 10% of the milk that his company needed to give to get a full salary from the USDA. Robin Safley is on the receiving end of this donation. He is executive director of Feeding Florida, an association of 12 food banks. These organizations send food to several thousand small non-profit groups who distribute it to people at temporary distribution points – food pantry.
ROBIN SAFLEY: First of all, we are grateful – aren’t we? – grateful in many ways.
CHARLES: But the logistics of moving all this food is a challenge even in normal times. Now throwing social distance, volunteers are worried about their safety and now this donation is from a USDA-funded company.
SAFLEY: Then that means we have new people to deal with. And how many trucks did they send, and where did they send them? And we don’t want them to pile up in other trucks that we have moved.
CHARLES: Safley compares it to solving a Rubik’s cube. Of course there are different ways to help people get the food they need – giving them money for food, which the US government has done with a program called SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. SNAP actually sends nine times more food to people than all the food banks in the country. And Jess Powers, who works with food aid programs in the US and abroad, says this method – transferring money, rather than product bags – is better in many ways.
JESS POWERS: It’s just more efficient.
CHARLES: This doesn’t directly help farmers who lose restaurant sales, but people who need food have more freedom to buy what they want. And the money they spend helps local businesses.
STRENGTH: This has a multiplier effect on society, and it is actually a better value to provide cash assistance because it creates economic activity.
CHARLES: The food bank itself actually agrees with this. This is Craig Gundersen, an economist at the University of Illinois who also works with Feeding America, an umbrella group for food banks.
CRAIG GUNDERSEN: We truly believe that SNAP is the most important component of our social safety net against hunger in our country.
CHARLES: Some anti-hunger groups are asking the USDA to increase the maximum amount of SNAP benefits that people can get. Gundersen said the food bank still had a big role to play, and they had several advantages. Anyone can come and get food – no proof of citizenship required, very few documents.
GUNDERSEN: People might run out of money at some point during the month to buy food, and they have, you know, local food pantry where they can get more food. Great.
CHARLES: But food pantry can’t do what SNAP does. They are so small that they can fill in the blanks, even with an additional food contribution of $ 3 billion.
And Charles, NPR News.
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