Food bank visitation has grown by nearly 400% in Eagle County; American Rescue Plan aims to provide relief
EAGLE COUNTY — The local food bank benefited greatly from the CARES act in 2020, and if signed into law this week, the American Rescue Plan could provide more relief.
Kelly Liken with the Eagle Valley Community Market said that while COVID-19 created devastating food insecurity for many, it also spurred the U.S. Congress to discuss the situation more than it had been in recent years.
“For a long time, everything had stayed the same,” Liken said on Sunday. “Now we’re forced to think about it a little differently because of the pandemic, but at the same time I think it’s really good that we’re all talking about this, and that we have people in Congress here in Colorado who want to hear from us.”
The American Rescue Plan passed the U.S. Senate on Saturday. In urging the Senate to pass the plan, newly elected Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper read messages from Colorado constituents in a livestream on Thursday, highlighting “how intensely Coloradans are suffering” from the pandemic, he said.
One message reads: “I’m homeless now, my truck is out of gas and I’m parked on a street. I have two days of food. I can’t take it any longer. Help! Quickly, please!”
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In Eagle County, the Community Market has fed more than 3,800 people each week since COVID-19 hit, an increase of nearly 400% over 2019. But even before the coronavirus, an increase in food insecurity was being observed in Eagle County.
“We opened our doors in late 2018 and demand has grown consistently each quarter,” Liken said of the Eagle Valley Community Market.
Plethora of programs
Federal food assistance programs that were created, or received new funding and attention as a result of the pandemic, include the Commodity Supplemental Food Program; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP); the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP); the Pandemic-Electronic Benefits Transfer program (P-EBT); and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).
The American Rescue Plan makes investments in SNAP, WIC and P-EBT. It extends SNAP maximum benefits by 15% and provides $1.1 billion in additional SNAP administrative funds; allocates $800 million for WIC; secures $37 million to cover food shortfalls in the Commodity Supplemental Food Program; invests more than $5 billion in P-EBT; and expands access to CACFP.
The American Rescue Plan now heads back to the U.S. House of Representatives for approval of changes made by the Senate before it can be sent on to the president to be signed into law. Rep. Joe Neguse, who represents Vail and other parts of Eagle County in the House, credited Sen. Michael Bennet for his work on the food assistance in the bill.
“Senator Michael Bennet and I have championed a successful effort to expand SNAP food assistance by 15%. This provision was enacted in December and under the American Rescue Plan will be extended through September 2021,” Neguse said. “As our communities continue to bear the brunt of this crisis, we must do everything we can to ensure families are not going hungry and that our local food banks have the resources they need during a season of unprecedented need.”
In discussing the programs with food banks in his district on Friday, Neguse received many thanks for the assistance that came in 2020, and some constructive criticism regarding the plethora of programs.
Carolyn Alexander with the Action Center in Jefferson County said in helping her community, her food bank often must ask itself “which lever are we pulling?” before planning their needs.
In Eagle County, Liken said CFAP was perhaps the best of the programs, due to the fact that the Eagle Valley Community Market has cold storage for the CFAP food pallets once they arrive. CFAP has delivered 143 million boxes of fresh produce, milk, dairy and cooked meats to people across the country as of March 5.
“At the very beginning of the pandemic, a lot of growers and farmers had extra food that they couldn’t distribute, and Congress said ‘how can we connect those growers to people who need food?'” Liken said. “It was a pretty successful program in which we ended up seeing a steady stream of boxes of fresh staple foods starting in the summer and lasting into the fall and winter.”
But Liken and Alexander both said they can understand how communities lacking cold storage were not able to benefit from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program food boxes.
“The smaller folks have no trucks, have no freezers, and have had to rent coolers,” Alexander said.
Hope for a ‘new, stable environment’
The distribution challenges of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program were partially addressed in TEFAP, which provided grants to help with infrastructure.
Alexander said both CFAP and TEFAP, which aren’t addressed in the The American Rescue Plan, were particularly helpful in Jefferson County.
“We’re lucky to have gotten a TEFAP grant to upgrade our cooler and freezer here in the last several months,” Alexander said.
Liken said legislation that addresses food insecurity in the U.S. needs “to really look at that end user — who is that end user and what do they need in order to be able to distribute that food.”
In Eagle County, those challenges were overcome through collaboration, Liken said.
“At the Community Market, we are lucky in that we have big walk-in coolers, so we partnered with the Salvation Army and said we will receive the pallets of these food boxes, and then we can distribute them slowly to you as you need them,” Liken said.
In other areas of the country, that’s not as feasible, and CFAP was criticized for failing to deliver food to many communities that need it most as a result.
Neguse said he expects CFAP and TEFAP will be examined as part of recently confirmed Secretary Tom Vilsack’s tenure in the Department of Agriculture.
“The next opportunity we have to plus up TEFAP and other important programs will be through the normal appropriation cycle,” Neguse said. “And I think now with a Security of Agriculture who has been confirmed in Security Vilsack, who of course is no stranger to Colorado having worked at Colorado State University for a time, we have connections to his office and are looking forward to working with him. My hope is that we’ll reach a new, stable environment where we can have some of these more long-range conversations.”
—This story was edited to correct Carolyn Alexander’s name and remove some of her quotes.