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California Food Banks Receive ‘Trade Aid’ Food, But It Comes With A Cost

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio file, 2015

Volunteer Lori Knott records the weight of a pallet of produce at the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio file, 2015

When President Trump slaps tariffs on China and other trading partners, those nations strike back. U.S. farmers find themselves caught in the middle.

As part of the Trump administration’s larger trade aid package to farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is buying up to $1.2 billion of domestic food items as a way to offset some of farmers’ losses. That larger program is known as the Trade Mitigation Program.

Sue Sigler, executive director of the advocacy group California Association of Food Banks, says the extra volume of food coming in is wonderful, in terms of providing more for hungry communities. But, she adds, there are challenges that come with this boon.

“[Will] there be enough funding coming along with it for food banks to be able to pay the cost of distributing that food?” Sigler asked.

She asks this because a significant part of a food bank’s budget goes to cover the cost of storing and distributing food, which they either purchase from farmers and grocery outlets or receive from the USDA. So now, with a large volume of food coming through the trade aid program, Sigler said many California food banks are concerned about whether they have the capacity to deliver.

Congress usually appropriates funding for those costs as part of emergency food aid programs, but Sigler says that’s not happening with this round.

Despite the extra cost, some see the extra commodities as a good trade-off. Michael Flood, CEO of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, says there is a still a great need for food assistance in the L.A. area despite the improving economy, and he estimates the volume will double what the food bank normally gets from the federal government.

Flood said it’s a pleasant surprise to be able to provide the community with milk, apples, oranges, potatoes and frozen beef — items that don’t usually make their way to food banks.

CapRadio asked the USDA to respond to the concerns of CAFB over a lack of funds to cover costs. An agency spokesperson replied by email that USDA is aware of the issues and challenges and committed to helping food banks address these concerns.

In Sacramento, shipments of fresh milk have already begun to flow to the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services. CEO Blake Young said perishable foods are gladly accepted, but he agrees they can pose a logistical potential problem.

Local food closets and pantries served by larger food banks have very limited storage, let alone refrigeration or transport capabilities. So, food banks have to move quickly to get large volumes of milk to local agencies quickly while it is still good. Those extra trips and storage cost money.

California food banks say they expect the food deliveries from the federal program to continue over the next six to nine months. What happens after that will depend on how the Trump administration’s trade policy unfolds.

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