Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand urged the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to prioritize New York-grown fruits and vegetables in the new food purchase and distribution program set to replace the Farmers to Families Food Box program.
The coronavirus pandemic caused a breakdown in the food supply chain and left many farmers and hardworking families unable to make ends meet. As restaurants, hotels, schools, and other food service entities ceased or scaled back operations, millions of pounds of produce was dumped, plowed, or left to rot. Meanwhile, food insecurity soared when newly unemployed New Yorkers faced substantial financial hardship and struggled to put healthy and nutritious food—which is often more costly or unavailable in food deserts—on the table. The Farmer to Families Food Box program helped close that gap, by providing hungry families with fresh fruits and vegetables. Ensuring that the program’s replacement continues to supply families with nutritious foods, including New York-grown apples, cabbage, onions, snap peas, and grapes, would combat food insecurity and help put Americans at lowered risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity, all of which lead to higher incidence of severe COVID-19 symptoms.
“Affording a nutritious diet should not depend on your socioeconomic status, but the truth is that hungry families aren’t just struggling to keep food on the table, they’re also struggling to afford nutritious meals that can help keep them healthy during this public health crisis,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The new food purchase and distribution program must connect farmer’s supply with the heightened demand of New Yorkers in need, while also supporting diets rich in vitamins and minerals, which we all need for our health. New York farmers produce delicious and nutritious foods, such as apples, cabbage, onion, snap peas, grapes and more, and including these nutritious foods in this new program will strengthen our diets, our farms, our food system, and our economy at the same time.”
To replace last year’s Farmers to Families Food Box program, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is currently seeking comments on the development, coordination, and implementation of a new food purchase and distribution program. USDA has stated that this program is intended to provide additional aid to nonprofits serving Americans in need of nutrition assistance.
Gillibrand has expressed that the new program has the unique opportunity to boost America’s fruit and vegetable farmers that have been hit hard by the economic crisis, combat food and nutrition and security, and potentially lead to better health outcomes for cash-strapped families. More than 80% of American’s have dietary patterns that are low in fruits, and 90% are low in vegetables.
As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Gillibrand has worked to protect farmers and reinforce the nation’s food supply, especially throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Last year, Senator Gillibrand introduced the Food Bank Access to Farm Fresh Produce Act, which would address disruptions in the food supply chain caused by the coronavirus pandemic and directly connect farms to food banks by providing $8 billion in block grants to food banks in the top vegetable and fruit producing states to purchase crops directly from farmers.
Full text of the letter can be found here and below.
Dear Secretary Vilsack,
I am writing today to urge you to make providing healthy, American-grown, fruits and vegetables to Americans the central focus of any program implemented as a successor to the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. On March 8, 2021 the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) announced they were seeking comments on the development, coordination, and implementation of a new food purchase and distribution program. USDA has stated that this program is intended to provide additional aid to nonprofits serving Americans in need of nutrition assistance. While the Farmers to Families Food Box Program had a number of issues, it was very successful in one regard, providing hungry families with healthy and nutritional fruits and vegetables. This potential new program has the unique opportunity to not only combat food insecurity, but also nutrition insecurity, while simultaneously supporting the American fruit and vegetable market while American farmers and citizens are still reeling from the health and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Eating fruits and vegetables is an important part of a healthy diet and provides us with the vitamins and minerals that we need such as vitamins A, C, and E, magnesium, and zinc. Not only that, fruits and vegetables are low in fat, salt and sugar, and high in fiber. These characteristics all lead to good health benefits such as reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity, all of which lead to higher incidence of severe coronavirus symptoms. In fact, the recently released Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), 2020-2025 report reaffirmed the importance of fruits and vegetables in American diets by stating that nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables (of all types) and fruits are core elements of a healthy dietary pattern. The DGAs recommend that Americans should make half their plate fruits and vegetables, which equates to two and half cups of vegetables and two cups of fruits per day. However, despite being an important part of a healthy diet, more than 80 percent of Americans have dietary patterns that are low in fruits, and 90 percent are low in vegetables.3 In the middle of a global health crisis, ensuring that American’s are able to meet these scientific recommendations should be of utmost importance.
Outside of providing Americans with the nutrients they need, making fruits and vegetables a crucial aspect of this new program will also strengthen the American fruit and vegetable market. Millions upon millions of pounds of fruits and vegetables were either dumped, plowed over, or generally wasted due to the breakdown of the food supply chain caused by mass school, restaurant, hotel, and entertainment venue closures over the course of this pandemic. While payments from programs such as the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) helped offset some losses, they didn’t make farmers whole and they didn’t put food into the hands of consumers. Thanks to the vast geographical makeup of the United States, American farmers are able to produce a wide variety of the healthy nutritious fruits and vegetables that help us meet our dietary needs such as spinach, tomatoes, strawberries, carrots, and oranges. Here in New York, our farmers are top producers of fruits and vegetables such as apples, cabbage, onions, snap peas, and grapes. Not only will including healthy options such as these in the new program lead to better health outcomes for American consumers, but will also lead to better financial outlooks for our American farmers by strengthening both our local food systems and our diets.
The Biden Administration and the new leadership at USDA has made battling food insecurity and providing assistance to our nation’s farmers a top priority. The new food purchase and distribution program that is being considered can tackle both of these commitments simultaneously by providing the nutritional intake that Americans need for their diet with American grown fruits and vegetables. Thank you for your careful consideration to this request and I look forward to your response.