As the East Texas Food Bank responds to growing need during the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit is preparing for the loss of thousands of dollars in funding due to proposed government budget cuts.
Due to a directive from Gov. Greg Abbott, agencies like the Texas Department of Agriculture were asked to trim their budgets by 5%.
So, the TDA proposed a $1.9 million cut to the Surplus Agricultural Product Grant, which goes toward helping food banks obtain fresh produce from local growers.
The East Texas Food Bank stated they will receive $92,373 less in funding, which will result in 738,984 less pounds of produce going out to East Texans in need. The funding cut could result in a loss of 615,820 meals.
The change would have to be approved by the Texas Legislature when representatives meet in January, according to Mark Dallas Loeffler, communications director for the TDA.
Loeffler said the TDA sent letters to grant partners indicating that they should proceed as if the cuts were approved and to prepare grantees.
East Texas Food Bank CEO Dennis Cullinane and other food bank officials are urging the TDA and governor’s office to reverse its cut proposal. He said the food bank was first notified of the change by Feeding Texas, a hunger-relief organization with 21 food bank members, in mid-September.
“This program is a win-win for the state, and a cornerstone of our ability to provide healthy food to Texans during their moments of need,” Cullinane said. “Surely we can find a less harmful way to trim the state budget.”
Cullinane said the grant helps those who are hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic, people experiencing job loss and farmers who saw their businesses disappear.
“Why would we cut funding so drastically for a program that feeds (hungry) people and supports struggling farmers,” Cullinane said.
This grant has been used since 2001 as a cost-effective strategy to fight hunger, reduce food waste and improve health, Cullinane said.
“Food banks use the funds to acquire fresh produce that is unsellable due to imperfections or market conditions,” he said. “The funds go directly to farmers, offsetting their costs of harvesting, storage and packaging.”
If the cuts are not reversed, the food bank will have to seek ways to offset the lost produce acquisition funding to “ensure that all East Texans have access to the nutritious food they need to thrive or risk reducing its fresh meal distribution.”
“As other federal COVID relief programs begin to expire, the TDA funding cut will amplify the pressure on ETFB’s budget to ensure that it can continue to distribute the record amount of produce needed during the pandemic,” Cullinane said.
Loeffler said the TDA had limited options when choosing where to cut the budget because most of the agency operates on a cost-recovery basis, which means most programs are funded through fees obtained from that program.
The small amount of general revenue from the legislature is sent back to the public through grants. As some of the only programs receiving general revenue, the grants saw disproportionate reductions to comply with Abbott’s request, Loeffler said
“There are simply few other places TDA can cut GR (general revenue) spending from our budget,” Loeffler said.
He noted that the food banks across Texas received over $76 million in new Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, “which makes the state contribution almost insignificant for this time period.”
“It’s unfortunate that any cuts had to be made, but I think most folks would understand even government has to tighten its belt too,” he said.
Loeffler noted the TDA is aware of the need to help those facing hunger, especially during the pandemic. The department has expanded feeding and food programs, including securing $11.2 billion in additional funding for feeding and assistance programs in Texas.
TDA expanded summer and school feeding programs to get food to those who needed it the most. The agency obtained needed waivers to expand federal feeding and food and nutrition programs.