(This is reposted from The Freelance Star and was written by Adele Uphaus)
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner visited the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank Monday afternoon to discuss ways legislation can address the food insecurity that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis both locally and nationally.
The Virginia Democrat—who earlier this month introduced legislation co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas that would expand access to healthy food in areas designated as food deserts—toured the food bank’s facility with new CEO and President Dan Maher, as well as Fredericksburg Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw and food bank employees.
In Fredericksburg, the counties of Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and King George and the community of Locust Grove—the localities served by the regional food bank—there are 41,000 food-insecure families, Maher said.
“That’s people who don’t have the means to have a healthy, active lifestyle and be able to support that through nutrition,” he said.
This represents a little more than 10 percent of the area’s total population. The number of food-insecure families is higher in the city of Fredericksburg—about 15 percent.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the food bank’s output has increased 55 percent, Maher said. It has had to meet this increased need on a $2 million budget.
The pandemic also changed how the food bank obtains food. Previously, its output was made up of about 70 percent donations from the community and 30 percent from the U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity programs—the Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Since COVID-19, donations are down to about 10 percent of the food bank’s output and have been replaced by purchased products.
As a result, the Feeding America charity is asking for an additional $900 million for TEFAP in the next federal relief package to increase funding for food purchases.
At 36,000-square-feet, the regional food bank is the smallest of seven food banks in the Feeding America network in Virginia, and Maher told Warner his goal is to increase the size of the regional food bank so that it can meet the needs of more people.
Crucial to this goal is more infrastructure—storage space, vehicles and especially coolers for preserving produce, dairy and meat fresh.
“Trying to steer our clients towards a produce- and protein-oriented diet is certainly a mission of food banks,” Maher said.
The regional food bank has only three coolers to serve the community’s needs.
Since many of the nation’s food banks share this constraint, Feeding America is asking the federal government to invest $543 million in improving cold storage and transportation capacity.
Feeding America would also like to see the federal government extend the increase in SNAP benefits for families; extend and support programs that help schools provide meals to children during the summer and future school closures; and provide financial assistance to families by expanding the child tax credit and earned income tax credit.
“Expanding the child tax credit could cut child food need in half,” Warner said, indicating his support for including funding for these initiatives in upcoming pandemic relief packages.
“We’ve not done anything on [food bank] infrastructure or capacity-building for the future,” he said.
Warner’s Healthy Food Access for All Americans bill would provide tax credits to developers who build grocery stores with fresh produce and meat sections, or retrofit existing stores with these sections, in areas identified as food deserts.
It would also give grants to food banks locating in food deserts and to food trucks, mobile markets and farmers markets that move into those areas. Locally, there are food deserts—identified as low-income census tracts where residents are more than one mile away from a supermarket in urban areas or 10 miles in rural areas—within and just outside the city of Fredericksburg and in Caroline County, according to the USDA’s food access map.