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Feeding Pennsylvania promotes and aids our member food banks in securing food and other resources to reduce hunger and food insecurity in their communities and across Pennsylvania.

Sitting Down with USDA Sec. Perdue

February 13, 2018

HARRISBURG – Feeding Pennsylvania had a seat at the table during the Jan. 22 roundtable discussion at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, with United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. The secretary was touring the midstate as part of a stop as the Trump administration unveiled proposals for the new Farm Bill.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and Feeding Pennsylvania Executive Director, Jane Clements-Smith pause for a picture together during Perdue’s stop in Central Pennsylvania in January.
Photo credit: USDA: Secretary Perdue talks with media at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in Harrisburg.

While boxes of food were being packaged, sealed, and shipped in the warehouse of the Central PA Food Bank, Perdue listened to the important messages of those fighting against food insecurity, and how vital of a role the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) plays in the fight.

Feeding Pennsylvania Executive Director Jane Clements-Smith, joined Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding; Joe Arthur (Central PA Food Bank); Joel Rotz (Pennsylvania Farm Bureau); Julie Masser Ballay (Sterman Masser Potato Farms); Kurt Schertle (Weis Markets Inc.); Carrie Calvert (Feeding America); Eric Saunders (New Hope Ministries); Matt Simon (Giant Food Stores); and Meagan Thorpe (Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association). At the table as well were three SNAP recipients.

Much of the conversation centered around combating the misconceptions of how SNAP – formerly known as food stamps – is used by participants. Those critical of SNAP suggest recipients use the program to buy unessential foods. That myth was refuted when Schertle, Chief Operating Officer of Weis Markets Inc. – the Mid-Atlantic food retailer with 204 stores – commented that his company’s data on SNAP users in its markets, pointed to healthy and sensible choices being made at the register.

“Our top five scanned items through SNAP include ground beef, bananas, chicken breast, bagged salad, and milk … protein and produce,” said Schertle.

Those results were also echoed by Matt Simon of Giant Food Stores.

Two of the SNAP recipients present were Marlin and Cindy Maurer. When given the opportunity, they spoke about what SNAP means to them.

“We appreciate SNAP due to our low income,” said Cindy. “We use whatever we get. We make use of it all. We freeze the vegetables to save for later. We don’t waste any of it.”

Farm Bill and SNAP

  The Farm Bill is a piece of legislation that is the primary agricultural and food policy tool of the federal government and is updated and passed approximately every five years. A key part of the Farm Bill is SNAP – something that has been pivotal in reducing hunger and food insecurity among low-income people.

According to the Food Research & Action Center, SNAP lifted 3.6 million Americans out of poverty in 2016. It was even higher in 2015, when it helped 4.6 million out of poverty. As the economy has improved, so have the numbers for those relying on SNAP for help – nearly 2 million less people in 2017. However, if the economy slows down again, more Americans would need the help of SNAP to avoid food insecurity. Making cuts to SNAP in the Farm Bill would take away from the safety net that families need to survive, and furthermore, the Feeding Pennsylvania food banks would not be able to keep up with the demand that would result in such cuts.

“We want those people who need it and deserve it, to have it,” said Perdue. “In fact, I would be in favor of even enhancing their ability for it. And I think if we can focus on that, we may be able to do more.”

“We’re your No. 1 fan if we’re talking a strong Farm Bill,” said Joe Arthur, Executive Director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. “Major cuts to SNAP would send thousands of additional consumers in Central Pennsylvania to our food bank’s network for assistance. In fact, we estimate that if the SNAP program were cut by 10 percent as was threatened during the 2014 Farm Bill, the food bank would need to nearly double in capacity to meet the increased need.”

Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System

  It was important for Clements-Smith and others present to make sure Perdue understood that while organizations like Feeding Pennsylvania work tirelessly to help people get nutritious food, there are innovative programs that could be enhanced at the federal level through the upcoming Farm Bill.

One idea that was brought up to Perdue as a model of success, was the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS). The innovative program, administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, accesses the surplus of healthy food produced by farmers in the commonwealth to share it with families in need. That surplus includes products such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy, pork and beef, and grains. The PDA allocates funding to all 67 counties in the Pennsylvania. Since 2015, that’s turned into more than 6 million pounds of fresh product from 98 farmers and processors, reaching 850,000 households.

“The concept is you have surplus product on the farm,” said Secretary Redding. “We cover cost of harvesting, packing, distribution. So at least from a producer’s standpoint, that product doesn’t go to waste.”

Mid-Atlantic Regional Cooperative

  Another way surplus produce has been able to reach food banks has been through the Mid-Atlantic Regional Cooperative (MARC). Clements-Smith expanded to Perdue how Feeding Pennsylvania helped organize and establish the MARC to assist in Feeding America member food banks becoming more efficient in their food distribution.

“Food banks would love a lot of produce, but they don’t necessarily want a whole truck load of cabbage,” said Clements-Smith. “So, this way we could get five to seven commodities on a truckload – a 40-thousand-pound truckload and get it out to food banks.”

The MARC – based out of The Port of Philadelphia – currently has 23 food banks that contribute to reimbursing growers and importers for costs such as harvesting, packaging and transportation.

“Each of the food banks have invested in this cooperative. They range from Virginia through New England. We’re moving 1.5 million pounds of produce a month or 8 million pounds since last summer.”