October 05, 2020

Gillibrand, Colleagues Urge USDA To Fix Problems With Federal Food Program Local Pantries Rely On

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, joined members of New York’s congressional delegation in a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Perdue expressing concern over the handling of the transition between vendors for Round Three of the Coronavirus Food Assistant Program’s (CFAP) Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which has left local food pantries without vendors or guidance on how to procure food boxes. The lawmakers also called out USDA’s failure to provide produce-only boxes to kosher and halal-serving pantries.

In the letter, the lawmakers stated that “food pantries have reported an over 600% increase in need as compared to months before the pandemic.”

“Across New York City, tens of thousands of New Yorkers are struggling to keep food on the table while food pantries work overtime to try to meet the crisis of food insecurity,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “Food pantries need partners, not roadblocks, so they can feed everyone, including those who keep kosher and halal. My colleagues and I won’t stop fighting until we get these answers for our community leaders.”

According to the UJA Federation of New York, an estimated 3.5 million observant Jewish and Muslim people would benefit from kosher and halal options at food pantries nationally. Across Westchester New York City, and Long Island, about 222,000 Jewish households keep kosher. An estimated 51,700 poor and near poor Orthodox households, the majority of which keep kosher, as well as 144,400 other poor and near poor Jewish households would stand to benefit from the inclusion of kosher options in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

In July, Senators Gillibrand (D-NY) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Perdue requesting information on what the USDA is doing to include kosher and halal foods in their Farmers to Families Food Box program. Senator Gillibrand has also previously led efforts to urge the USDA to label kosher and halal food for the national school lunch program, a federal meal program that provides low-cost or free lunches to school children. In New York City alone, more than 180,000 Jewish children are living in poor or near-poor households.

Read the full text of the letter below:

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Dear Secretary Perdue,

We write to express concern about the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s handling of the transition between vendors for the Coronavirus Food Assistant Program’s Farmers to Families Food Boxes (CFAP). This program has been critical in feeding those who are facing food insecurity. However, in the transition between the CFAP vendors selected for rounds two and three, miscommunication from USDA has left many food pantries in New York City suddenly without food, causing upheaval in the lives of those families who were relying on their local pantries for meals. 

We understand that the new vendors selected for round three of this program were required to specify the counties or boroughs to which they would provide food. However, this has forced many non-profits and food pantries who had relationships with vendors no longer serving their county or borough to scramble to find new partnerships, with no guidance from USDA, no overlap in service provision, and nowhere to turn for help.

Further, it is our understanding that many vendors applied for round three contracts with preexisting relationships with food pantries in the regions they will serve. This means that those who have lost their non-profit partners have been forced to identify their new vendors after their old partnerships have been cut, again without any guidance from USDA. In a city as diverse as New York, food pantries often serve specific cultural or religious communities. If new vendors are simply providing food to those pantries that they already have relationships with, we can be sure that whole communities in our city will remain underserved.

It has also come to our attention that each Farmers to Families box will now include a signed letter from President Trump. Using federal programs that feed hungry families during a national crisis to pursue a political agenda is unacceptable and egregious. We urge you to immediately cease adding these letters to CFAP boxes.

Finally, while we have already expressed this concern in an unacknowledged letter to you dated August 28th, every vendor that was selected for round three will be providing mixed meat/dairy/produce boxes. This eliminates the participation of kosher pantries, who often serve both kosher and halal communities. To fail to provide for these pantries in the midst of the Jewish High Holidays is particularly shocking and has resulted in Jewish families across the city unable to access food during their most holy season.

Our city’s food pantries have reported an over 600% increase in need as compared to months before the pandemic; hungry families are desperate. We urge you to immediately ensure that round three CFAP vendors are proactively reaching out to food pantries who can no longer work with their former partners; to clearly explain to food pantries who their new vendor is; and to provide produce-only boxes to kosher pantries. 

We urgently await a response to this letter. 

Sincerely,