Warren Hammonds inside the Colonial Heights Food Pantry as orders are being fulfilled. (JW Caterine for the Virginia Mercury)
After months of delay, Virginia on Thursday released over $6 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture funds to procure food products from local farmers to distribute to food-insecure populations.
The root cause of the slowdown in fund disbursement is unclear, as other states began using grant funds as early as March, but one contributing factor was language in the budget that prevented the governor from authorizing grant funds linked to American Rescue Plan Act dollars after the General Assembly session started. Because the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services made the request for appropriation authority in January, the funds had to be authorized as part of the budget amendment process, which still remains under negotiation.
“We were staring down a scenario where basically the state has millions of dollars to buy food directly from small Virginian socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, [and] distribute to food insecure families,” said Tom McDougall, founder and CEO of 4P Foods, a company that distributes food from local and regional farmers and is one grant recipient. “And yet there’s this legislative accident preventing the money from flowing.”
In 2022, the USDA through the Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Program made available up to $900 million in federal funding to states, territories and federally recognized tribal governments for state purchases of local and regional foods with the goal of supporting socially disadvantaged farmers and food relief programs and organizations.
USDA announced its cooperative agreement with Virginia through the program in July 2022. At the time, VDACS estimated it would use the funding to buy food from 166 local farmers and distribute it to 164,000 individuals across the commonwealth.
VDACS did not respond to questions concerning the months-long gap between its agreement with the federal government and its request to begin spending the money but did provide a written statement following the release of the funds.
“We are pleased to be able to extend the Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement funding to Virginia Food banks and other organizations to improve food access in underserved communities. In addition, the funds help build and expand economic opportunities for Virginia producers,” the statement said.
The delay caused alarm to both grant recipients that had already been placing orders with farmers and farmers who were making plans for the coming season.
“We didn’t find out until late January that there was potentially a problem,” said McDougall.
Legislative approval also proved difficult because of the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House’s continued failure to reach a compromise on amendments to the two-year budget.
Because the funds could not be released through the General Assembly, grant recipient plans were postponed by months. For example, McDougall said another grant recipient had made an agreement with a local farmer to plant strawberries in the spring with the intention of shipping them in May with LFPA funds. The strawberries were planted, but because of the hold up, there was nowhere for them to go.
LFPA awardees then reached out to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office to see if it was possible for him to authorize the funds following adjournment of the session. Last week, they received word that the governor had signed off on appropriating the funds, but budget language required that the House and Senate appropriations committees be given five business days to weigh in before they could be released. The five-day waiting period ended Wednesday, allowing the money to be distributed starting Thursday.
The funds come at a critical time for food-insecure populations in Virginia, who lost income for food when Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) emergency allotments expired in February. During the pandemic, all people eligible for SNAP received the maximum amount of the benefit.
Without the emergency allotments, SNAP recipients are seeing drastic cuts, said Cassie Edner, an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
“We’ve seen a lot of individuals that are 60 and above that went from $281 a month to $23 dollars a month,” she said. “They’re calling us up in tears saying, ‘How can I afford my food? How can I afford rent?’ You have to choose sometimes, rent or food, you know, medications. It’s a hard choice.”
Dina Archer, a senior citizen who recently visited the Colonial Heights Food Pantry in Petersburg, said she had been receiving over $400 a month from SNAP before the emergency allotments ended. Now she said she only gets $23 a month. She has depended on the assistance since she lost her husband to COVID-19 several years ago.
“People shouldn’t have to feel embarrassed about this,” Archer said. “I still have to spend money in the grocery store. It’s not like you’re not gonna go back to the grocery store, but [at the food pantry] you get the opportunity for vitamins and minerals, all the things that you need instead of eating the same thing every day because you can’t afford it.”
Warren Hammonds, the pantry’s only full-time staff person, said his facility had been seeing more demand since inflation started to spike last summer.
“I’ve had to search for emergency grants to cover costs of additional shelf-stable food that we have to have on hand for these vulnerable populations,” Hammonds said. “It’s been very demanding financially.”
According to Virginia Department of Social Services reports, 900,313 people in Virginia, including children, benefited from SNAP in April 2023. Eddie Oliver with the Virginia Federation of Food Banks said that the average household lost $95 a month after emergency allotments ended.
“By some measures [it’s] the largest cut to the nutrition safety net in history,” Oliver said. “It’s a massive amount of money that has suddenly dropped out of the program at a time when food prices are still very high.”
Now that the federal funds have been released, some extra assistance will be available.
“We have been eagerly anticipating the nutritious products that will be made available to our food bank network through the LFPA,” Oliver said in a statement on Friday. “The fresh produce and culturally familiar items we are expecting from our friends at 4P Foods will enable us to better serve low-income seniors and communities suffering from low food access. This support could not come at a more urgent time.”
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