California’s Farm to Family Program has grown substantially over the past five years. Yet one in five Californians continue to face food insecurity and the state is poised to lose a third of the meals in its food safety net.

According to Stacia Hill Levenfeld, CEO of the California Association of Food Banks (CAFB), the state’s network of 41 food banks distributed more than a billion pounds of food last year, adding up to 850 million meals. More than 229 million pounds of that was fresh fruits and vegetables from California farms.

“Essentially farms that have extra or second-quality food can give us a call,” Levenfeld explained to the State Board of Food and Agriculture on Tuesday. “We'll find a food bank to move the food for consumption, and we will arrange the freight and all of the logistics.” While the program is nearly two decades old, it has grown significantly since the height of the pandemic, when food assistance programs altogether provided nearly 9.2 billion meals to Californians.

Stacia Hill LevenfeldStacia Hill Levenfeld, California Association of Food Banks

The program’s list of farms donating food continues to grow. It distributes California-grown food to urban centers, border communities, rural regions and in response to disasters like wildfires and flooding.

Last year CalFresh emergency allotments provided 1.3 billion meals, or 14% of the total, while the Pandemic EBT program made up 19% of the meals in the state’s food safety net. Yet those programs are slated to end by fall. The issue is compounded by inflationary grocery prices impacting individuals and food banks, meaning the CalFresh benefits that are left will not stretch as far as they did three years ago, explained Levenfeld.

Last year CAFB secured $120 million from the state’s CalFood fund for food banks to purchase California-grown and manufactured products.

“This has been critical to food bank's ability to keep food flowing,” said Levenfeld, adding that this was despite a drop in the availability of commodities in The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

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She is hoping to maintain $60 million in funding from the state budget this year, despite the deficit, and is requesting an infusion of $180 million to address capacity constraints, particularly with cold storage, and to help food banks move toward zero emissions. A series of bills navigating through the Legislature aim to shorten the line at food banks by expanding access to CalFresh benefits and strengthen the School Meals for All programs.

CAFB is also pursuing opportunities in the Farm Bill to infuse more money into TEFAP, raise SNAP benefit levels, and end “the discriminatory practices that leave these benefits out of reach for so many.”

The association has been working with CDFA to expand the reach of technical assistance providers and build more partnerships with community-based organizations, while providing educational resources to small and historically underserved farmers and ranchers.

CAFB will be sourcing a $49 million Local Food Purchase Assistance (LFPA) grant for 34 TEFAP agencies and food banks over the next two years, which will help to build relationships with small farms owned by black, indigenous and people of color.

“We view the LFPA as giving food banks a unique opportunity to source more culturally appropriate foods for their communities,” said Levenfeld. “They're specifically looking for not only produce but also beans, eggs and meats and other proteins.”

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