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Bread for the City, a D.C.-based nonprofit devoted to poverty alleviation, has sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for allegedly failing to buy the amount of food required by an act of Congress through the Emergency Food Assistance Program.
USDA believes that the 2014 Farm Bill authorized it to spend $327 million on food for the program in fiscal year 2015. But in a suit filed in federal court in late September, Bread for the City puts forth its interpretation that the bill authorized $602 million in spending. The nonprofit, which receives hundreds of thousands dollars worth of food items through TEFAP annually and distributes it to at-risk and homeless populations in D.C., seeks an injunction to compel USDA to spend the additional funds.
The civil action names USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in addition to the Food and Nutrition Service branch within the agency as defendants. If the nonprofit, represented by attorneys from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, succeeds, USDA would have to purchase “an additional $275 million in food for distribution in 2015,” the suit says. The case could affect thousands of food-banks that receive TEFAP funds nationwide.
“We think there’s been a difference in about a billion dollars in what the [Farm Bill] regulation intended [versus what USDA will have given out] over a period of four years,” Bread for the City CEO George Jones explains. “We believe we have standing because we are in fact directly affected by that calculation. More importantly, it affects how much food we and other pantries can distribute to people.”
USDA did not return a request for comment Thursday.
The case could come down to a difference in legislative interpretation: A memo USDA sent to regional and state directors of food-assistance programs last September suggests that it believed the “amount available for TEFAP food purchases in FY 2015 [was] $327 million”; of the funds, about $4 million would be spent on food-transportation costs. The 2014 Farm Bill, Bread for the City argues, “dramatically increased” TEFAP funds relative to those available in FY 2013 ($266 million).
Jones adds that his organization serves more than 20,000 people a year through its food pantries in Shaw and Anacostia, which see roughly the same amount of people. (In terms of families, Bread for the City serves around 5,000 households a month.) Its food budget is about $2 million a year, Jones says, and TEFAP funds can compose anywhere between 10 and 25 percent of the budget depending on the year; the rest of its funds come through individuals, foundations, and church groups. (Individuals are the biggest group of donors.)
“There’s some indication that there are more food-insecure people in Washington, D.C., today than there were even a decade ago,” Jones says. “And part of that has to do with—it’s a complicated issue—issues like the affordable-housing crisis and income disparities that have gotten exacerbated during the [economic] recovery period that have conspired to make even more people food insecure or at risk.”
You can read the full lawsuit, found via Poverty & Policy, below:
Update Nov. 16, 5:40 p.m.: A spokesperson for USDA provided City Desk with the following statement: “The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is a vital component of America’s nutrition safety net. While we cannot comment on pending litigation, we understand that TEFAP is a critical resource that supports the important work being done by emergency food providers across the country.”