Local food pantry feels the impact of overdue U.S. Farm Bill

Published 2:14 pm Friday, October 6, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Frustration, disappointment and stress isn’t felt by just policymakers in Washington D.C., who have an overdue farm bill looming over their heads. Those emotions are also felt by people in Washington, North Carolina who are trying to provide nutritious food for families and individuals in Beaufort County. 

The farm bill is crucial for organizations like local food pantry, Eagle’s Wings. It lays out rules and regulations for agriculture and food programs. Written every five years, the farm bill aims to address agriculture and food issues. Historically, the farm bill contains programs that support staple commodities such as; corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice, peanuts, dairy and sugar. Since 1973, farm bills have grown to include nutrition assistance programs, horticulture, bioenergy titles, conservation efforts, research and rural development titles. 

Should it not be renewed by Congress, “some farm bill programs would expire, such as the nutrition assistance and farm commodity support programs… The farm bill extends authorizations of discretionary programs,” according to the Congressional Research Service. 

The deadline for the farm bill passed last week, and the Senate and House have yet to reach an agreement on a new bill. On a local level, this means organizations like Eagle’s Wings have difficulty getting enough food for the 2,000 individuals they serve across Beaufort County. 

Eagle’s Wings is supported by the federal government through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). When farms across the nation have overages, that food is either processed, boxed or canned then given to area food banks like Food Bank of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City which serves Beaufort, Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hertford, Hyde, Martin, Northampton, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell and Washington Counties. 

“We get a lot of our food through the USDA through the food bank,” Eagle’s Wings Executive Director Anne-Marie Montague explained. Eagles Wings purchases food, pounds at the time, from the Food Bank of the Albemarle at 19 cents per pound. 

In addition, Eagle’s Wings receives donated food from community members and Feeding America. Feeding America is a nonprofit organization and network of food banks, food pantries and food programs across the country. Through Feeding America, food at grocery stores nearing its expiration date can be donated to Eagle’s Wings then distributed to local families or individuals. Eagle’s Wings collects food donations from three Food Lions and one Walmart. 

Though they have multiple sources of donations, they are currently struggling to provide enough food for local families and individuals. They are also struggling to fill their new capacity. With grant funding from the USDA, Eagle’s Wings was able to install a new $45,000 walk-in freezer, but it sits empty. 

From October 2022 to September 2023, the USDA “funded a second round of $60 million in TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program) Reach and Resiliency Grants to help expand the reach of the emergency food system in underserved areas including remote, rural, tribal, low-income, or low food access communities. State agencies and local emergency feeding organizations are using the funds to implement unique, creative solutions to address program gaps and best serve their communities’ specific needs. The $60 million in round two funding is in addition to the $40 million distributed in fiscal year 2022,” according to the USDA. 

Montague said the freezer is a nice addition, but “I can’t get stuff to put in it, because we’re not getting the amount of food that we could use to do this and therefore be able to distribute more.” 

Eagle’s Wings is currently adjusting to the number of pre-COVID pandemic donations. During COVID, food donations were plentiful at their location on West Third Street to the point where they were running out of space and donated food to other nonprofits in the area. 

“During COVID we were getting so much, so much,” Montague said, “There was all this food in the pipeline…I mean this place was packed with food. My operations guy used to say to me, ‘where am I going to put this stuff,’ and I said, ‘well, you can fit two pallets in my office.’” 

Today, however, food donations through the food bank have been “cut back drastically,” Montague said. They have been cut back to pre-COVID levels. 

“So it’s like, ‘wait a second, you wanted us to build our capacity so we built our capacity and now we can’t get the stuff to put in it,’” Montague said. 

Covering several shelves in Eagle’s Wings’ food pantry are several TEFAP bags waiting to be given out. If they did not have those bags, Eagle’s Wings could only offer canned green beans to clients. 

“The blessing here in disguise is that it’s the end of the month for us. These are still TEFAP bags that have everything else in them so we are okay, but if we had to go an extra week all people would be getting is a can of green beans from this program,” Montague shared. 

Other shelves in the food pantry have sparse amounts of dry goods where at one time those shelves were completely filled. This month, Montague will have to special order tomato products because none are available from the Food Bank of the Albemarle. In recent years, there would be a hefty amount of canned tuna and canned chicken in the pantry, but right now, both are unavailable at the food bank. 

“Usually we have a ton of pastas and macaroni, mac and cheese, rice,” Montague said pointing to a nearly bare shelf, but right now, “we don’t.” 

It’s difficult to purchase items from the food bank, because “the supply chain is broken right now,” Montague shared. 

“I was told by the food bank that they realistically expect the food chain to be fixed sometime in 2024,” Montague said. “Well in the meantime, it’s 2023 and you’re hungry.” 

When asked her opinion on what it would take to fix the supply chain, Montague, referring to Congress, said, “I think they have to realize when they carry on up there and don’t do what they’re supposed to do, it affects the poorest of our people. They are suffering because of [Congress’] inability to do their jobs.” 

Montague continued to say there are multiple reasons why the food supply chain is broken, but signing the farm bill would at least give Eagle’s Wings and similar food pantries the knowledge and peace of mind that more food is on the way. 

“By not signing the farm bill, it puts everything in suspended animation, because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Montague said.  

It’s unclear if or when Eagle’s Wings will receive the same amount of food they did during the pandemic and it’s unclear how certain programs will be affected – programs that Eagle’s Wings’ clients rely on like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and CSFP (Commodity Supplemental Food Program).  

Per an article from Maryland Matters, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news site, House Republicans want to add more work requirements for SNAP funds in addition to limiting those funds. “SNAP is considered a mandatory appropriation and would continue at current levels as long as there is an appropriations bill or a continuing resolution to keep the Agriculture Department running,” according to Maryland Matters. This is one of several issues holding up a vote on the farm bill. 

Eagle’s Wings faces uncertainties about food from the food bank and nutrition assistance programs, but one thing they see is an increase in the number of new families who need their help. 

“Our concern is, because we’re seeing a lot of new people, a lot of new families coming in who are on food stamps and if food stamps are up in the air and they’ve got to feed a family – where are they going to go and how are they going to do this? They are going to come to places like here where we can stretch their family budget and at least they can get something they can work around. That’s pretty serious stuff,” Montague said. 

According to Eagle’s Wings, more than 70% of the households they serve are either at or below the poverty line. In the U.S. one in five children go to bed hungry each night, but in Beaufort County that ratio is one in four. 

Eagle’s Wings not only provides food from their main location, but they also have four satellite locations, a monthly program for medically homebound clients, a backpack program for qualifying elementary school students and administer two mobile food pantries with ECU Health Foundation.  

Volunteers complete about 98% of the work done at Eagle’s Wings which includes, picking up groceries from local grocery stores, receiving and processing food; packing boxes of food for clients; delivering food to the homebound; help with food distributions; interviewing clients and manning the front office. 

In the event it does not have enough food, or doesn’t receive as many monetary donations, Eagle’s Wings has to make cutbacks. The problem is deciding where those cutbacks will be made, because it could affect a population they serve. 

“If we don’t get the food or we don’t get the donations, we have to cut back and where do we cut back? Who do we not take care of? The seniors, the children, the families with children,” Montague asked.