Congress: Strengthen food access programs through 2023 Farm Bill

Opinion by Nikali Luke, CPA, board chair of Greater Lansing Food Bank and partner at Simplified Tax and Accounting Services and Michelle Lantz, chief executive officer of Greater Lansing Food Bank

As families across mid-Michigan continue to feel the strain of inflation and rising food prices, lawmakers in Washington are deciding on nutrition assistance funding for the next five years through the reauthorization of the Farm Bill. During Hunger Action Month ― a nationwide month of action held every September to spread awareness and inspire action to end hunger in America ― it’s time to make your voice heard to ensure our neighbors have the nutrition they need to work, learn and manage chronic illnesses… even during times of hardship.

Food costs continue to outpace inflation, with the average person in the United States spending 4.9 percent more on groceries in July 2023 compared to July 2022. Greater Lansing Food Bank (GLFB) has seen a 35 percent increase in the number of neighbors seeking out charitable food assistance in 2023. Despite this increase in need, government and retail food donations to food banks decreased, putting immense strain on the charitable food network and the families that rely on them.

We urge lawmakers to pass an effective, equitable 2023 Farm Bill to assist local families experiencing food insecurity and help keep nutritious food on their tables while investing in America’s agricultural economy.

The Farm Bill is an expansive piece of legislation that determines many nutrition and agriculture programs for the next five years,

including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and other emergency food programs for seniors, children and those with emergency or chronic needs. The reauthorization process provides an opportunity to improve and strengthen these programs for our most vulnerable neighbors experiencing emergency needs in their households.

However, this process also leaves these essential nutrition programs vulnerable to be defunded or gutted, placing an even greater burden on charitable food systems, healthcare systems affected by chronic illness related to poor nutrition, businesses whose employees rely on this assistance and the general public. Without robust investment in nutrition programs through the Farm Bill, everyone suffers in our communities.

It is critical for Congress to prioritize improving federal nutrition programs that work in partnership with food banks, like GLFB, through this year’s Farm Bill reauthorization.

TEFAP: A critical lifeline for food insecure neighbors and local farmers

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provides a critical lifeline for the one in eight people in America facing food insecurity. TEFAP is the backbone of the charitable food system, providing nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish and dairy to food banks like GLFB for distribution to low-income households. Increased support for TEFAP will strengthen food purchasing power and costs for storage, distribution and infrastructure.

Strengthening TEFAP through this Farm Bill will also support local farmers and rural communities while increasing the sustainability of mid-Michigan’s rich agriculture industry and emergency food access for neighbors in need. Congress is also considering the Farmers Feeding America Act, a newly proposed bill that would roughly double funding for TEFAP food purchases. Its inclusion in the 2023 Farm Bill will help more neighbors access fresh produce, protein and other nutritious foods.

In 2021, the USDA purchased more than $95 million in food from Michigan farmers for this program, ranking Michigan 6th highest in TEFAP-purchased foods. Increasing the amount of money invested in this program will directly benefit not only our neighbors facing food insecurity, but also our local farmers and Michigan’s economy overall.

SNAP: Food access for our lowest-income neighbors

SNAP is the nation’s largest anti-hunger program. During the pandemic, we witnessed how well this program worked to prevent food insecurity, as additional SNAP emergency benefits kept the rate of food insecurity from rising as high as anticipated. According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), SNAP provided food to more than 710,000 households — more than 1.3 individuals — in fiscal year 2022. Forty percent of those reported recipients were children; these are children who may only have had consistent access to food at school, leaving them unsure of whether food would be available at home in the evenings and on weekends.

SNAP emergency allotments, temporary benefit increases enacted by Congress to address rising food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, ended in Michigan after February 2023, resulting in an estimated monthly loss of $7,850,000 in benefits across GLFB’s seven-county service area alone. In the following months, GLFB witnessed a 35 percent average increase in households seeking food from our network compared to the prior year. Emergency allotments of food and other benefits kept an estimated 4.2 million people in the United States above the poverty line in the last quarter of 2021.

Still, almost everywhere in the United States, SNAP benefits do not cover the cost of a full meal.

Improving food access through programs like SNAP and TEFAP also provides critical and often immediate economic stimulus for farmers and local retailers, as households spend their monthly SNAP benefits at grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Continued investment in these programs creates a multiplier effect of prosperity for our community, supporting neighbors facing hunger while investing in local businesses, farmers and economies.

Investment in SNAP is especially critical in a time of unprecedented food inflation. Congress must provide relief to families experiencing the challenge of putting food on the table to uphold the nation’s legacy of providing temporary assistance to neighbors who have fallen on hard times.

Supporting our neighbors, strengthening our economy

As grocery store prices rise and supply chain disruptions continue, lawmakers must come together to pass a strong 2023 Farm Bill that helps tens of millions of people in America experiencing food insecurity. And there is no better time to act than now, as Hunger Action Month calls upon everyone in our communities ― including our legislators ― to come together and work towards ending hunger for all.

To ensure everyone has a seat at the dinner table, we must continue to strengthen partnerships and programs between food banks, policymakers, agribusinesses and other anti-hunger partners. Through the 2023 Farm Bill and the Farmers Feeding America Act, the United States has a viable pathway to help millions of people facing hunger put food on the table and build on the strides made to end food insecurity. Because no one should go hungry in the wealthiest country in the world.