In the midst of this holiday season, the federal funding that was keeping so many food pantries afloat has quickly dried up. As food insecurity in the region continues to rise, local food assistance organizations are left with more questions than answers as to how to keep up with the growing needs. Prince William Food Rescue has been coordinating with the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program as part of the Community Feeding Taskforce response to COVID since July.
During Round 3 of the program, Prince William Food Rescue (PWFR) redistributed over 10,000 USDA food boxes per week in order to support 78 food distribution sites throughout the Greater Prince William Region. That is the equivalent of 1.3 million pounds of food and nearly 1.1 million meals per month. Additionally, the Community Feeding Taskforce (CFT) was redistributing another 3,000 non-perishable food boxes in partnership with the Capital Area Food Bank.
In an online Washington Post article published yesterday, entitled A $4.5 billion Trump food program is running out of money early, leaving families hungry and food assistance charities scrambling,” Laura Reiley and Greg Jaffe wrote:
"The program has gone through four rounds of funding since it began this spring: $1.2 billion in contracts were awarded in the first round, $1.76 billion in the second, and $1 billion in the third. The fourth round was cut to $500 million. The USDA, in a statement, acknowledged that the amount of funding in that last round, which covered November and December, “resulted in some non-profits being unable to participate and fewer box deliveries.1”
As food insecurity increases around our country, funding is going in the wrong direction. Since the USDA was late in announcing awards for the latest round, there was no way to plan ahead for the cuts and many partners in counties throughout other states suddenly received zero food boxes for their communities. 412 Food Rescue in Pittsburgh, PA reported that only half the state of Pennsylvania received any USDA food boxes at all during this last round.
PWFR/CFT experienced this first-hand: a reduction of 4,000 food boxes per week due to decreased funds in November through December. Losing nearly half of these boxes meant asking the Prince William County, City of Manassas, and City of Manassas Park governments for more CARES funding to purchase an additional 22 tractor trailer loads (over $540,000 worth) of food to make up for the shortfall. Such partnerships and local government support are not the norm. While the collaboration between local government and the CFT has allowed food to continue to flow through this community, many other organizations throughout the country have been left with few to no alternate suppliers of food this holiday season.
During a recent visit from Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton at the CFT Warehouse in Manassas, VA, PWFR/CFT Director Aaron Tolson spoke with her about this very concern: “The concept of the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program is wonderful, however there have been a lot of concerns along the way raising serious questions about who is ‘at the table’ making the decisions on implementation? Who is determining how much food is needed in each community – do they even know that we exist here in Prince William County? Do they even know that the 10,000 USDA boxes we redistribute each week aren’t enough? And the biggest question is: what happens in January? What is Congress going to do when it comes to funding? Food insecurity is only going to get worse for quite some time.”
With the current CARES funding and (what seems to be) the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program ending in a couple of weeks, the CFT and many other food providers are scrambling to figure out just how to meet the rising need for food in our communities, right before the holidays. “For us,” said Tolson, “we are extremely fortunate to have the support of local jurisdictions, a warehouse space with cold storage, support from Capital Area Food Bank, and weekly donations from nearly a hundred food donor partners.”
As the new year approaches, local and federal funding will be essential to sustaining the CFT’s current scale of food redistribution throughout the area. One thing the community can count on is PWFRs redistribution of food that would otherwise go to waste from local restaurants, grocery stores, and other food providers. Using the Prince William Food Rescue app, hundreds of volunteers are rescuing and redistributing food around the county. In response to the new challenges of the pandemic, they are also completing thousands of no-contact direct deliveries of food to shut-in families and seniors. To be a Food Rescue Hero, simply download their app and create a profile. More information and local community food resources can be found at https://pwfoodrescue.org/programs/cft