As Congress crafts new Farm Bill, food pantries send call for help

A food shelf with many shelves with no food on them.
The Channel One Food Shelf and Food Bank have been hard hit recently with increased demand and decreased supply.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

With pandemic aid waning and inflation still challenging Minnesota families, food pantries are struggling to keep shelves stocked — and they're looking to the 2023 Farm Bill to help.

Three people talk in a group
Rachel Sosnowchik, public affairs specialist for Second Harvest Heartland, talks during a recent Farm Bill listening session in Burnsville.
Second Harvest Heartland

Congress is holding hearings on the bill now, which won’t pass until next year. And recently, Second Harvest Heartland toured the state to hear from food pantries about their hopes for the bill.

Rachel Sosnowchik, a public affairs specialist for the food bank, joined All Things Considered Tuesday to talk about what she heard on the tour.

You can hear their conversation by using the audio player above, or read a transcript of it below. It has been edited for length.

Tell us how food pantries are doing right now.

What we heard from everyone is that we're seeing inflation go up, gas prices go up and different federal sources of food for food shelves go way down. And so pantries are trying to meet greater demand for food assistance and having a much harder time sourcing that food.

During the pandemic, we heard that demand certainly went up and then there were different programs and funding, most of it federal, for assistance. Is any of that remaining or are those days over?

Those days are pretty much over. The one thing that we still have in place is there was an expansion of SNAP benefits. That’s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. It’s a monthly benefit that families can use at their grocery store. So certain populations, particularly college students, were able to access SNAP in new ways. And then also there is still an overarching increase in SNAP benefits.

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But things like stimulus checks, the extra Child Tax Credit payments, universal school meals, all of those things are now over. And we've definitely seen, starting in 2022 when most of those programs phased out, that there has been a really steady increase in need across our service area. And we're hearing that from the other food banks in Minnesota, too.

Looking to the Farm Bill, tell us what could be included in it that would help food pantries?

First is really increasing government spending on food that is distributed through food banks and hunger relief organizations. That’s through a program called the Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TFAP. And we’ve seen that go down about 50 percent from last year to this year. That’s something that’s funded through the Farm Bill.

And then the other thing is SNAP benefits. There are a lot of barriers to entry, so streamline some of those, make the enrollment process easier, open up participation in SNAP to populations who don't currently have access. That's something that we can permanently change in the Farm Bill. And the just increasing benefit amounts.

Hearings over the Farm Bill are happening now. What’s the process for organizations like yours, that actually want to influence it?

The Farm Bill we’re talking about won’t actually pass until 2023, so we’re at least a year if not longer out from seeing a final Farm Bill. So that’s one of the reasons we wanted to organize these listening sessions now, so that we can start having those conversations with our members of Congress.

And I will say that most people, they hear Farm Bill and they thing about farming. And that’s fair. There are a lot of agriculture provisions in the bill. But the nutrition program funding is the vast majority of the Farm Bill funding. And we have heard from everyone that we talked to that it's really important that we're working together to ensure the final Farm Bill that we see next year is going to work for the people who produce the food and is going to work for the people who consume the food that they’re growing.