COLUMN: Neighbors Helping Neighbors: Effectively Supporting the Mission of Local Food Banks

May 8, 2015
Weekly Column and Op-Ed
By Rep. Dan Newhouse

I recently visited Northwest Harvest in Yakima to get a firsthand look at the important work the food distribution center and the food bank network are doing to support the vulnerable in our community and to hear about challenges that food banks may be facing.  Federal policy can hinder or help distribution of emergency food aid through our nation’s food banks. Federal regulations should ensure that non-profits are able to operate in an efficient, cost-effective manner.

Northwest Harvest and food banks across the country are on the front lines in offering a vital community service for those who may need a little extra help getting food on the table. Northwest Harvest’s mission statement is, “to provide nutritious food to hungry people statewide in a manner that respects their dignity, while fighting to eliminate hunger.” I was greatly impressed by the dedication of the staff and volunteers to serve their community. I was further impressed to see how efficiently Northwest Harvest—and the nation’s food bank system—harness their resources to help the most people possible. 

In recent years, the number of families struggling to make ends meet has increased significantly. Last year, 46 million people—or one in seven Americans—received emergency food assistance through the nation’s food banks. Food banks typically run on razor-thin margins, so any additional costs or shortfalls have a magnified impact on the capacity to serve those in need. Under the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) purchases nutritious foods and provides them directly to food banks. TEFAP not only assists families in meeting nutritional needs; the program also helps farmers through USDA’s bonus purchases of commodities. The recently enacted farm bill provided funding for TEFAP, allowing USDA to continue helping food banks with their mission to provide food for those in need.  However, this program provides only a fraction of the food that our food bank network provides to those in need. Through agreements with corporate partners, farmers, and others, food banks lead the way as neighbors helping neighbors. In fact, some statistics have shown that food banks are able to use $1 to leverage $5 in food-purchasing power. 

While individuals give generously to food banks during holiday seasons, donations can be uneven throughout the year, which is where the TEFAP program can help supplement shortfalls.  However, we must ensure that the TEFAP program is working as dynamically and efficiently as our food bank network. The last farm bill provided important language to ensure balanced deliveries and that the federal government does not impose burdensome red tape on these non-profits. As a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, it is a priority to ensure that USDA is following these directives and not getting in the way of the work of our food banks.

While the government can make it easier for our food bank system to flourish, the real success is due to the hard work of the individuals who donate and volunteer. We all have the ability to donate our time and resources and be part of neighbors helping neighbors.