Local Food Procurement in Times of Crisis

by Sasha Feldstein

The most recent Farm Bill, officially known as the Agricultural Act of 2014, was probably most widely associated with an $8.6 billion cut to SNAP, a 2.8 million acreage cut in land marked for conservation, and a long congressional stalemate. However, looking more closely, the Farm Bill also had a major win signed into law in its expansion of funding devoted to local and regional food procurement. Started as a pilot program in 2008, the USDA Local and Regional Procurement Pilot Program (LRP) provided post-crisis food aid in developing countries by purchasing and distributing food from local areas.

At only $80 million dollars, the LRP is a pittance in comparison to the $946 billion allotted in the bill. Nonetheless, local and regional food procurement as a disaster response has been remarkably successful thus far. A 2012 USDA report showed that the LRP program helps get food to victims of disaster-strewn countries an average of 74 days earlier and 36% cheaper than through in-kind food aid donations.

And as our country prepares for the inevitability of more natural disasters year after year—disasters like Hurricane Sandy, for example—we could take a lesson from the international community. It’s time to for us to use a similar model of focusing on local and regional food procurement—through SNAP, new transportation policies, and community food projects, among other initiatives—to respond to disasters, so that people who fall victim to disasters like the 114,000 victims of Hurricane Sandy can have access to food quickly, cheaply, healthfully and efficiently. Here, I use Hurricane Sandy as an example to show four policy changes that should be made in disaster response.

Extend and expand the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (DSNAP).  DSNAP provides all eligible victims of disasters with a short-term allotment of food stamps at the maximum possible allotment for their household under the typical SNAP program. According to the Food Research and Action Center, every dollar of emergency money spent on food stamps sparks $1.73 in local economic activity, enriching a local economy struggling with the disaster.  As seen in Figure 1, this $1.73 per dollar impact is larger than any comparable program in local stimulus per dollar. After Hurricane Sandy, we saw that thousands of families became food insecure due to the storm, and extending DSNAP is a cost-effective and efficient way to help communities recover over the long term while feeding families today.

Increase Food Stamp outreach initiatives. While DSNAP will help get families back on their feet, many families will still need longer-term support. Therefore, outreach initiatives must be put in place to educate and enroll families in regular SNAP benefits. A major disaster brings already vulnerable families to the brink, making it critical to provide outreach to allow informed family response. Furthermore, increased SNAP participation has been shown to mitigate emergency food provider (EFP) food shortages, a major issue facing EFPs in post-disaster areas.

Increase transportation access for individuals and families from disaster-affected areas to nearby food retailers. Food and water are points of greatest concern following a disaster. Following Hurricane Sandy, the areas of NYC most affected were already areas in greatest need of supermarket access, In planning for the next storm, it is even more important to increase transportation to nearby food retailers

Enable emergency food providers (EFPs) to purchase food locally for distribution. Improving EFPs’ access to locally grown food boosts the local economy, supports local farmers, and increases access to fresh food for low-income communities. This emphasis on the local economy as a whole is a key. Facing significant damage from a natural disaster, an emphasis on local food responds on both the supply and demand sides, boosting local farming while taking advantage of quick and low transportation costs to efficiently meet demand. In order to meet increasing demand at EFPs, looking to our local food producers provides a comprehensive economic response.

Without a doubt, the people directly impacted by disasters like Hurricane Sandy are the most important among those affected by improved and increased access to food. However, many other stakeholders will benefit from improved post-disaster food policies as well. Local farmers will be able to secure a return for the crops that will be purchased for EFPs, while EFPs will be able to meet their increasing demands for food. With improved transportation, local food retailers will be able to increase their foot traffic, and increased SNAP participation will be a boon for NYC’s local economy. This is of particular importance for businesses that have been dealt an unlucky blow in the wake of a disaster.

The champions of policies focused on local food procurement as a response to disaster relief have worked and experienced success on both a national and international level. A non-profit organization called Just Food, through its direct purchasing and Fresh Food For All program, has demonstrated that increasing the ability for EFPs to purchase food locally and promote SNAP participation has helped individuals and families access fresh food while providing additional markets for farmers.  Through LRP, Oxfam America has seen that “LPR can save time and money, allowing crucial aid to reach more people in need of food assistance. It also invests in communities so they can feed themselves, instead of becoming dependent on food aid in the future.” There is a tremendous opportunity for Oxfam and Just Food to share best practices and methodologies for local food procurement as a way to improve food access. While operating on two very different levels, the premise of both programs is the same: instead of relying on in-kind food donations and increased dependency through food aid, invest in rebuilding communities for the long term by increasing access to and purchasing of fresh, local food.

By allowing individuals and families to obtain SNAP, get to food retailers, and access fresh, local food through EFPs, we can ensure that those affected by future disasters will have a solid foundation to rely on as they work to feed their families and rebuild their lives. The policies outlined here are not major shifts, and they can be done using our existing systems. All they require is the funding and support necessary to make sure that all those affected by large natural disasters know about and are able to participate in these programs. They also require the political will to take proactive steps toward preparing for the next disaster. For Sandy victims in New York City, perhaps the policy window is closed. However, considering that there will inevitably be a “next time”, the US must act and adopt these lessons so that when the next disaster strikes, we will be ready to respond.

Sasha Feldstein is a first-year MPP student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.