Food Banks Say SNAP Is A Better Way To Get Food To People
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Millions of people are turning to charitable organizations known as food banks these days. Donations are up, too. And the government just announced plans to use these organizations to distribute billions of dollars' worth of fresh produce, milk and meat. The people who run these food banks say that's great, but they are not the best way to help people get food. NPR's Dan Charles reports.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: It has been a tough year for Borden Dairy, a milk processor in Dallas. Demand for milk is down so much with schools and restaurants closed, some farmers had to just dump their milk. But a couple of weeks ago, the company got a big new customer. Tony Sarsam, Borden CEO, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture will pay the company $130 million to send 40 million gallons of milk to charitable organizations like food banks.
TONY SARSAM: That gives a sense of purpose and meaning to this organization. It's also important - 'cause we work with so many independent farmers - that it gives them stability.
CHARLES: More than a hundred companies got similar contracts this month. The USDA expect to spend about $3 billion on this program eventually. Now Sarsam and all these other companies have to figure out how to give their food away.
SARSAM: We have to get off to the races and find connections within the charitable community that can take our products. Our team here has been on the phone nonstop.
CHARLES: I mean, is there a chance that there just aren't enough places out there that are set up that have the capacity to handle it?
SARSAM: There's every bit of that chance. Cold storage is a big deal, as you can imagine. Not everybody has enough cold storage for it.
CHARLES: So far, he's only found takers for about 10% of the milk that his company needs to give away to earn that full paycheck from the USDA. Robin Safley's on the receiving end of these donations. She's executive director of Feeding Florida, an association of 12 food banks. Those organizations deliver food to a couple of thousand small nonprofit groups that hand it out to people at temporary distribution points - food pantries.
ROBIN SAFLEY: First of all, we're grateful - right? - grateful in a lot of ways.
CHARLES: But the logistics of moving all this food around is a challenge even in normal times. Now throw in social distancing, volunteers worried about their safety and now these donations from USDA-funded companies.
SAFLEY: Then that means we have new people to deal with. And how many trucks are they sending in, and where are they sending them to? And we don't want them to stack up on the other trucks that we have moving.
CHARLES: Safley compares it to solving a Rubik's cube. There is, of course, a different way to help people get the food they need - give them money for groceries, which the U.S. government already does with a program called SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. SNAP actually delivers nine times more food to people than all the food banks in the country. And Jess Powers, who's worked with food assistance programs in the U.S. and abroad, says this method - transferring money, rather than bags of produce - is better in a lot of ways.
JESS POWERS: It's just more efficient.
CHARLES: It doesn't directly help those farmers who have lost their restaurant sales, but the people who need food have more freedom to buy what they want. And the money they spend helps local businesses.
POWERS: It has this multiplier effect in communities, and it's actually a better value to give cash assistance because it creates economic activity.
CHARLES: Food banks themselves actually agree with this. Here's Craig Gundersen, an economist at the University of Illinois who also works with Feeding America, the umbrella group for food banks.
CRAIG GUNDERSEN: We truly believe that SNAP is far and away the most important component of our social safety net against hunger in our country.
CHARLES: Some anti-hunger groups are calling on the USDA to boost the maximum amount of SNAP benefits that people can get. Gundersen says food banks still have a big role to play, and they have some advantages. Anybody can show up and get food - no proof of citizenship required, very little paperwork.
GUNDERSEN: People may run out of money at some point over the course of the month to purchase food, and they have their, you know, local food pantry where they can go get some more food. Wonderful.
CHARLES: But food pantries can't do what SNAP does. They're so small they can just fill in the gaps, even with $3 billion worth of extra food donations.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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