House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis Report Includes Major Agriculture Policy and Food Waste Reduction Recommendations, Including Several Submitted by FLPC and FBLE

This blog post was written by Ali Schklair and MJ McDonald, FLPC summer interns.

In June 2020, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis (Select Committee) released Solving the Climate Crisis, a comprehensive set of recommendations to confront climate change and resulting economic and racial inequities. Created in January 2019 by House Resolution 6, the bipartisan Select Committee spent 17 months interviewing scientists and stakeholders and gathering input through hearings and written comments. The Select Committee’s efforts ultimately culminated in hundreds of policy recommendations focused on 12 key pillars. As a member of the Farm Bill Law Enterprise (FBLE), Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) responded to a number of the Select Committee’s questions on ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change through two separate submissions: (1) on behalf of FBLE, FLPC submitted recommendations on agriculture policy and, (2) FLPC submitted recommendations on food loss and waste reduction policy. We are pleased to see that many of FBLE and FLPC’s recommendations were included in the Select Committee’s report. This post highlights where the Committee adopted recommendations in line with FLPC’s submissions and notes opportunities where the Select Committee could make its recommendations even more effective.  

One of FBLE’s key recommendations was to move the United States agricultural system away from reliance on annual crops and toward a more sustainable perennial system. The SCCC report recognized the significant climate benefits agroforestry offers and recommends that Congress fund agroforestry research and establish a grant program (through existing conservation program funding) to support farmers transitioning to agroforestry.

FBLE also recommended that conservation compliance requirements be revised to include climate-friendly practices.  Set forth in the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill, conservation compliance requires producers to follow a conservation plan approved by the Natural Resources Conservation Service when planting crops on highly erodible land and prohibits producers from planting on wetlands. FBLE recommended that government funds only be awarded to producers who incorporate conservation and climate measures on their land, as opposed to producers who meet the minimum requirements for highly erodible lands and wetlands.  FBLE also noted that even if conservation compliance requirements remained unchanged, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must increase enforcement of the requirement for them to be effective.

In line with FBLE’s submission, the Select Committee recommended that enforcement of the conservation compliance requirements be improved.  However, the Select Committee’s enforcement strategy focused mostly on administrative changes, rather than conservation compliance. To further promote conservation compliance, the Select Committee recommended that Congress increase funding to restore native grasses and wetlands and expand the sodsaver policy. Currently, this policy only applies to six states, so expansion would be beneficial.  Nevertheless, the change falls short of FBLE’s recommendation that subsidies be made conditional on enhanced conservation compliance.  Therefore, the Select Committee’s suggested changes may be too minor to achieve the Committee’s purported goals.

Crop insurance offers an additional opportunity to incentivize climate-friendly farming practices.  As FBLE suggested, the Select Committee recommended that the USDA provide more resources to the Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program, an insurance program that provides coverage for all of a farmer’s crops, thus eliminating the need to insure each crop individually. The Select Committee further suggested that Congress increase the USDA’s capacity to help farmers enroll in the program and offer higher incentives for incorporating crop diversification and climate conscious farming practices. Finally, the Select Committee included FBLE’s recommendation to offer discounts on crop insurance to farmers who use climate-friendly practices.

FBLE also made a number of recommendations regarding improvements to conservation programs to help achieve climate goals. FLPC is pleased to see that the Select Committee included many of FBLE’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) recommendations in its report, including expanding acreage protected under the CRP, increasing rental rates, lifting administrative barriers to CRP enrollment, extending CRP contract limits and allowing permanent easements. the Select Committee also addressed FBLE’s recommendations for improving the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and included the recommendation to make practices that promote carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions eligible for conservation incentive contracts. FLPC is disappointed, however, that the Select Committee did not take up FBLE’s recommendation to cut funding for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Despite the environmental harm caused by methane gas emissions from these operations, the Select Committee did not address CAFOs in its report.

All of these suggested policy changes can greatly reduce agriculture’s impact on climate change. However, in order to sustain this progress, Congress must invest in future developments of our agricultural system.  FBLE recommended many ways Congress could contribute to ongoing research on climate-friendly farming practices.  The Select Committee included the recommendation to formally authorize regional USDA Climate Hubs, which will produce practical science-based research and provide general support to farmers engaged in climate-friendly farming.  Further, while not included in FBLE’s recommendations, FLPC agrees with the Select Committee’s recommendation that Congress should provide financial and technical support to beginning, young, and socially disadvantaged farmers working to adopt climate-smart practices.

In addition to the recommendations submitted as a member of FBLE, FLPC submitted its own recommendations on food loss and waste reduction policy opportunities. For years FLPC has supported local, state, and federal policies that divert excess food to people in need and prevent the economic and environmental impact of food waste. FLPC submitted several food loss and waste policy recommendations to the Select Committee and is excited the Committee demonstrated its commitment to reducing food waste and increasing food recovery in its final report. The Select Committee recommended that Congress support implementation and provide funding for the Winning on Reducing Food Waste initiative and provide financial resources to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. The Committee also called for Congress to increase support and investments in food waste reduction initiatives in homes, schools, grocery stores, and restaurants, as well as on the farm, throughout the government, and in landfills. These recommendations align with FLPC’s submitted recommendations. Although the Select Committee’s recommendations are broad, they specifically suggest that funds and resources be provided for food waste reduction efforts.  FLPC’s submission detailed a number of specific ways that Congress support and invest in food waste reduction, should Congress decide to create targeted solutions in upcoming legislation.

For example, Congress could provide funding for a national food waste educational campaign or for comprehensive research and tracking on the amount of food lost or wasted at each stage of the supply chain.  Additionally, funding could be allocated to the USDA to study imperfect produce waste and potential solutions and to research and create grant programs for innovative technologies that limit food waste. To divert food waste from landfills, Congress could increase funding to support the construction of composting and anaerobic digestion facilities, provide research and development funding for food recycling technologies, and fully fund the Compost and Food Waste Reduction Pilot Projects grant that was included in the 2018 American Agricultural Act (2018 Farm Bill), while providing funding to states and localities that seek to implement organic waste bans. Congress has many opportunities to invest in food loss and waste reduction, thereby leading our nation in the fight against the global climate crisis.  We hope Congress will consider the many food waste reduction opportunities supported by FLPC and the Select Committee.

FLPC looks forward to seeing all of these recommendations incorporated into U.S. agricultural policy. One bill that already addresses many of these issues is the Agriculture Resilience Act (H.R. 5861). Introduced by Representative Chellie Pingree, the bill would increase funding and support for farmers committed to climate-friendly farming practices, such as land conservation and carbon sequestration. The bill would also encourage the use of digesters to convert methane emissions from livestock and food waste into renewable energy. To help reinforce SCCC’s recommendations, FLPC hopes that Congress considers passing the Agriculture Resilience Act to achieve a climate-friendly and resilient agricultural system.

COVID-19 Food-Related Policy Tracking: Highlighting State Approaches

This blog post was written by Bridgette Slater with contributions by Ali Schklair, Amanda Dell, Emily Yslas, MJ McDonald, and Regan Plekenpol. All are FLPC summer interns.

In early June, FLPC launched the State Policies for Feeding Vulnerable Populations Tool, which tracks state policies issued in response to COVID-19 that facilitate food delivery, food at centralized pick-up locations, and funding to support emergency feeding programs. Most of these policies are related to emergency feeding programs, but we also noted policies related to farmworker safety, given their importance to the food supply system. This blog post highlights a selection of notable policies from different states in the hopes that researchers, policy advocates, and other stakeholders might find them useful when considering potential policies to increase food access in their own state.

Feeding Program Policies


On April 24, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the launch of California’s “Great Plates Delivered” program, which delivers three meals per day to older adults and stimulates the local economy by mobilizing restaurants to provide these meals. The program costs, shared across federal, state, and local governments, amount to $66 per person each day. As of July 2020, an estimated 643 restaurants have prepared nearly 3 million meals and served about 34,388 Californians statewide through the Great Plates Delivered program. Its popularity has led Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to authorize extension of the temporary food program several times over the last three months, with the current end date tentatively scheduled for August 9, 2020 as of time of publication.

Although the Great Plates Delivered program has made huge strides for the local economy by keeping restaurants open and for vulnerable residents by delivering food to their doorstep, its eligibility criteria has prevented older adults with the greatest financial need from reaping the benefits of the program. In order to be eligible, participants must earn more than 200% of the federal poverty level, which means that older adults earning less than approximately $25,000 annually are unable to access this innovative program. In response to criticism about this lower bound restriction, California’s state officials have stated that the state is complying with FEMA’s mandate that program funds cannot go towards those already benefitting from other government programs.


In Massachusetts, the Administration of Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito has relied upon the state’s Food Security Task Force, a public-private partnership convened by the Massachusetts COVID-19 Command Center in response to increased demands for food assistance, to identify urgent areas of need and recommend action items. The task force’s primary objectives include maximizing access to nutrition programs, centralizing coordination of resources, and researching potential creative partnerships.

Alongside the Food Security Task Force’s efforts to research and craft a comprehensive plan, the Baker-Polito Administration also allocated $56 million in funding for the following programs: launch of a $36 million COVID-19 Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program, $5 million increase for the Healthy Incentives Program, $12 million for the provision of 25,000 family food boxes per week, and $3 million in immediate relief funding for food banks. These four initiatives are designed to increase access to emergency feeding sites, support food system businesses, and stabilize supply chain disruptions. While two of the four initiatives–increased food bank funding and statewide distribution of family food boxes–are familiar emergency feeding responses, the other two programs are either new or supplement an existing program. The COVID-19 Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program has provided individuals and families with increased access to food and maintained a special focus on supporting farms, fisheries, and local food producers. The increased funding for Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which helps SNAP recipients purchase fruits and vegetables, has allowed Massachusetts to meet heightened demand for local produce and improve access to HIP retailers, such as farmers markets and mobile markets.


When COVID-19 shut down the operations of dairy farmers’ typical customers, namely schools and restaurants, industry stakeholders launched a collaborative initiative that purchases farmers’ raw milk, processes it into containers of milk, yogurt cups, and butter, and gives it to the Vermont Foodbank. The collaboration, which is coordinated by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (VAAFM), spans cooperatives, processors, and nonprofits in addition to the Vermont Foodbank. The program costs are covered through grants and donations. The Vermont Community Foundation provided a $60,000 grant to purchase the milk, which dairy producers then processed into 42,000 cups of yogurt, 11,500 gallons of 2% milk, and 440 pounds of butter that was all donated to the Vermont Foodbank. Since the dairy industry accounts for about 70% of Vermont’s agricultural sales, saving this milk and turning it into sellable products has been a huge win for both struggling farmers and hungry families. Moreover, Vermont’s responsiveness helped mitigate the precarious situation that unfolded across the country when a glut in supply and plummeting milk prices forced many dairy farmers to dump the large quantities of perishable product they were left holding.

Agricultural Worker Safety Policies


In the midst of many states rolling out policies focused on emergency feeding efforts, Oregon took a different route. It emerged as an example of a state that aimed to intervene at some of the early stages of the food supply chain with the goal of mitigating disruptions and protecting vulnerable food system workers. When the pandemic threatened Oregon’s summer harvests, Governor Kate Brown announced the Food Security and Farmworker Safety Program, which is a $30 million investment in protection measures for Oregon’s agricultural sector.

Of the program’s $30 million total, $14 million was allocated towards mitigation of COVID-19 outbreaks by providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for farmworkers, a Quarantine Fund to pay expenses for sick workers, and preventative safety education funds for community-based organizations serving migrant seasonal farmworkers. The remaining $16 million went towards agricultural workforce housing modifications, field sanitation, and bringing employer-provided transportation into compliance with social distancing requirements. To promote accessibility, Oregon provided a single application for all of the program’s resources and made it available online in Spanish and English. Oregon’s investment in essential workers was an innovative approach to targeting supply chain disruptions and ensuring that vulnerable communities were protected.


To address agricultural worker safety during the pandemic, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order designed to increase telehealth options and healthcare access for migrant agricultural workers living in congregate housing. Additionally, under the order, owners and operators of licensed employer-provided migrant housing must follow strict social distancing measures, such as separating beds at least 6 feet apart, providing isolation housing for infected residents, ensuring regular ventilation of rooms, and delivering food to isolated residents.

Prior to the Governor’s executive order, multiple outbreaks occurred across Michigan farms as owners shirked their responsibility to keep their employees safe and took no precautions to protect migrant agricultural workers in congregate housing. However, even with this executive order in place, compliance by farm owners is not guaranteed unless state officials diligently enforce it. FLPC is encouraged by Michigan’s important first step to protect agricultural workers and hopes that Michigan is taking the necessary subsequent steps to ensure these workers are actually protected under the order.

Visit our dynamic policy tracker, the State Policies for Feeding Vulnerable Populations Tool, to learn more about the actions that states have taken to combat food insecurity during the pandemic. This tool is intended as a resource for tracking best practices, identifying shortfalls, and helping direct practitioners to programs and funding. The policy tracker is a living document and we include a link at the top of the spreadsheet inviting any advocates, researchers, or others to contribute to this resource.

Maximizing Food Security For Unauthorized Immigrants During COVID-19

This article was originally written by David Velasquez, Jordan Kondo, Sarah Downer, and Emily Broad Leib and published by Health Affairs on July 28, 2020.  

Many immigration advocates are calling for the release of detainees under US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody amidst concerns of COVID-19 outbreaks in detention centers. From March to May, ICE only reduced its detainee population by about 7,000 (in 2018, a daily average of 42,000 immigrants were held in detention), but a court order is expected to result in the release of more detainees at high risk of COVID-19 complications, including people older than age 55 and those with chronic health conditions. Yet, ICE does not offer any support to these detainees upon release, and they are not eligible to receive benefits under many programs that serve the basic needs of most Americans. This country should take steps to meet the basic needs of unauthorized immigrants in the US to protect them from the harms of COVID-19. Chief among those basic needs is that of food security.

Unauthorized immigrants, who are usually of Hispanic descent, have a one in four chance of being food insecure. In April, 30 percent of Hispanic adults and 42 percent of Hispanic adults with children reported being food insecure. There is no food insecurity data for newly released ICE detainees, but one group of unauthorized immigrants living in the US for less than 10 years had a food insecurity prevalence of 96 percent. The individual health consequences of food insecurity are concerning and are even more so for the detainee population since they are consistently fed unhealthy meals while in detention centers and have significant trouble finding employment and thus maintaining food security upon release.

Food insecurity is associated with myriad adverse health outcomes. Although no existing data implicates a direct connection between food insecurity and COVID-19, poorly nourished individuals in general are at greater risk for various bacterial, viral, and other infections than those who are well-nourished. People with diet-related chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and hypertension, also tend to have more severe complications from COVID-19. Those being released from detention are already older and sicker, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Leaving anyone without adequate food is itself a horrifying human rights violation and counters the globally acknowledged right to food. Furthermore, if not supported in fulfilling their basic needs, unauthorized immigrants likely will disproportionately suffer from COVID-19 and hamper public health efforts to contain the virus. Many unauthorized immigrants continue to work through government shutdowns, as they are disproportionately in roles classified as “essential workers,” and therefore face a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. The following policy recommendations can help meet the basic food security needs of all people currently in this country, including unauthorized immigrants, to alleviate hunger and ill health in the US.

Supporting Emergency Food Organizations And State And Local Government Responses

Unauthorized immigrants have limited options to access food assistance and other social safety-net programs because of their immigration status, and thus rely heavily on emergency food organizations, such as food banks and food pantries. Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, reports that food banks nationwide have seen an average increased demand of 59 percent compared to this time last year and, from the beginning of March through early May, have distributed more than 947 million meals. To address growing food insecurity, Congress allocated $850 million in additional funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program. Under the Emergency Food Assistance Program, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) purchases surplus agricultural products from across the country to send to state agencies to distribute to emergency feeding organizations, such as food banks. On top of this, with funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the USDA will spend up to $3 billion on the Farmers to Families Food Box Program within the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which will support farmers with surplus product in delivering boxes of produce, dairy, and cooked meat to nonprofits, including food banks. These programs have the benefit of not only getting food to those who are struggling but also bolstering food producers and distributors who have lost their supply chains due to COVID-19 closures.

Despite these investments, many indicate that the existing federal stimulus packages are not enough to alleviate hunger throughout the pandemic. Feeding America estimates $1.4 billion dollars will be needed over the next six months to adequately address the increasing food insecurity across the nation. Based on 200 food banks surveyed in the Feeding America network, 95 percent of them reported higher operational expenses, with more than a third struggling with immediate funding. Over the coming months, Congress should be prepared to allocate additional funding to support the increasing operational costs of emergency food assistance programs and fill inventory gaps. Maximizing access to food banks is critical because they serve all individuals, regardless of immigration status, thus making them a vital resource for unauthorized immigrants and anyone else who is not eligible for other food assistance programs.

Additionally, state and local governments are closely positioned to identify needs and service gaps in communities and should consider distributing funding to food banks and agencies whose missions are inclusive of all immigrants. For example, Massachusetts formed a Food Security Task Force that identified urgent needs and food supply chain issues across the state. Based on the task force’s recommendations, Massachusetts has invested $56 million to combat food insecurity, of which a significant amount will go toward aiding food banks. To support states in filling identified gaps, the federal government should provide state-level funding or block grants to help local governments collaborate with community-based nonprofits to ensure that local needs are being met. For example, one bill recently introduced into the US House of Representatives would provide money to states to enable food banks to purchase and distribute surpluses from local food producers.

Health Care’s Role In Ensuring Food Security

While the US health care system remains a largely untapped vehicle for formally facilitating access to nutritious food for vulnerable people, nutrition-focused innovation within health care is becoming more common. Medicaid programs in California and Massachusetts are offering coverage for medically tailored meals and other nutrition support for people who meet certain eligibility criteria. Other states, in response to COVID-19, have proposed to initiate or expand Medicaid coverage of food for certain populations. Unfortunately, because unauthorized immigrants are largely unable to enroll in Medicaid, they are also shut off from these or other nutrition benefits through Medicaid. While states can use Medicaid waivers during times of emergency to increase coverage for categories of people who normally do not receive coverage, there has been no move to do so during the current crisis, even in the face of documented COVID-19 outbreaks among farmworkers.

However, unauthorized immigrants can and do benefit from health system efforts to coordinate and collaborate with community-based social services. More hospitals and other health care organizations around the country are screening patients for food insecurity and connecting people to food assistance programs and other nutrition resources. Many unauthorized immigrants receive health care from community health centers (CHCs), some of which have adopted food insecurity screening protocols and are linking patients to services. CHCs also frequently administer food support programs, funded by municipal grants or philanthropic funding, that are available to all patients regardless of immigration or insurance status.

For example, some hospitals and health centers are opening their own on-site food pantries. These are typically stocked with food that is appropriate for diet-related health conditions such as diabetes and accessed via referral from a medical provider. Other health centers and hospitals are operating healthy mobile markets that travel through high-risk communities or to their health care sites to offer free or heavily discounted produce and healthy groceries. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Health Resources and Services Administration can support these initiatives by issuing guidance and offering technical assistance on how to establish co-located food pantries and mobile markets, which should be accessible to unauthorized immigrants.

Yet, reductions in services offered through CHCs and other health centers due to COVID-19-related budget woes threaten access to safety-net programs such as these. In the next relief package, Congress should include additional funding for CHCs to deliver much-needed social services. Municipalities can also assist CHCs in continuing to offer food support by ensuring that they receive support from COVID-19 emergency funds (such as Community Development Block Grants and Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] funds) to do so.

Expanding Access To Food Through Federal Food Assistance

As many more individuals are facing economic crisis, and food banks struggle to meet increased demand, the federal government has faced growing calls to expand food benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP is the largest federal food assistance program, and participation in the program significantly reduces food insecurity and mortality. Increased benefits would not only promote food security for SNAP recipients but also help stimulate the economy, since every $1 billion in SNAP benefits creates a $1.79 billion economic benefit in the community. States have instituted emergency SNAP benefits through USDA waivers and eased participation rules because of COVID-19. However, despite their contributions to the workforce and their high rates of food insecurity, unauthorized immigrants continue to be excluded from SNAP eligibility.

Instead of making SNAP more accessible to those in need, the current administration has actually placed barriers in the way of immigrants accessing SNAP benefits by expanding the US Citizenship and Immigration Service’s (USCIS) Public Charge determination policy. In a 2019 rule, the USCIS announced it now will consider whether an individual received SNAP or Medicaid benefits in the decision about whether that individual can upgrade their immigration status to a more permanent authorization, on the theory that use of such programs would mean the individual is likely to become a “public charge.” This new rule is one of the biggest barriers to SNAP enrollment for immigrants because they fear losing the ability to change their status or to remain in the US. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the USCIS announced that no use of “treatment or preventative services” related to COVID-19 would be considered in making a public charge determination, but the statement did not remove use of SNAP benefits from the determination. The USCIS should eliminate SNAP from the public charge determination during the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, if not permanently.

For those able to participate in SNAP, the benefit remains quite low, an average of $1.40 per meal. Congress should pass the HEROES Act to increase monthly SNAP benefits, similar to actions taken during the 2008 financial crisis. States should simultaneously request approval to operate Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP). D-SNAP allows states to increase benefits for existing SNAP beneficiaries, as well as offer applicants who might not normally qualify for SNAP, potentially including unauthorized immigrants, to receive one month of SNAP food assistance benefits in the setting of a disaster. The COVID-19 pandemic should fall under the purview of D-SNAP and qualify as a disaster.

While nonprofit organizations and health systems play some role in addressing food security needs for unauthorized immigrants, the federal government should bear the primary responsibility of doing so. SNAP was intended as our nation’s first-line program to address hunger; for every meal served by America’s largest food coalition Feeding America, SNAP provides nine.

Although SNAP is not an option for many immigrants, because of lack of eligibility or fear of the Public Charge rule, several other food assistance programs offer promise. One example is Pandemic EBT, a program tailored to support children who would have received free or reduced-priced meals at school but can’t because schools are closed. Through this program, EBT cards are sent to eligible households regardless of immigration status. However, the program has only reached a small percentage of eligible children. States should improve the distribution of Pandemic EBT, and states not currently offering this program should do so.

The FEMA Public Assistance (PA) Program also provides funding for the purchase and distribution of food as an emergency protective measure. FEMA PA funding can go to state or local governments (and certain private, nonprofit organizations). Governments may partner with organizations such as food banks to provide emergency food aid and use PA funding to reimburse the organizations. In April, West Virginia secured 300,000 meal kits from FEMA. Because many of the entities distributing the food procured by FEMA, such as food banks, do not restrict their recipients, FEMA PA funds offer an avenue to support those in need, regardless of immigration status.

Feeding The Most Marginalized Through The Pandemic

Access to healthy food is a basic human need, one that is recognized as a right in 170 countries and is vital to any public health response to COVID-19. Furthermore, supporting unauthorized immigrants and their well-being is important to effectively combat the public health challenges brought on by the coronavirus. Ensuring immigrant health by addressing food insecurity will protect unauthorized immigrants, especially those filling essential roles in our response to COVID-19, and move us toward health equity. Robust funding for emergency food services and food assistance programs accessible to unauthorized immigrants, such as food bank services and programs administered via CHCs, must be a priority. But we can go further. As our health care system increasingly evolves toward integration of nutrition into care delivery and financing, we must ensure that reforms can reach unauthorized immigrants and are not limited to programs that exclude them. Over time, we should also ensure that SNAP benefits, as our primary food assistance program, are available to anyone in this country. Following these recommendations can help the US guarantee one of the most fundamental human rights to our most marginalized communities.

COVID-19 highlights systemic flaws in H-2A visa program

This article was written by Amanda Dell, RDN, FLPC Intern.

While many Americans hunker down in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of farmworkers lace up their boots and head out into the fields to harvest ripening crops. This essential workforce includes over 100,000 H-2A visa workers, many of whom travel from Mexico on a temporary visa to fill seasonal agricultural jobs—jobs that most U.S. residents themselves don’t want to do.

In order to protect the nation’s food supply chain, the Trump administration has strengthened the H-2A program, despite temporarily banning many other visa programs. In April, the Department of Homeland Security issued a final rule to amend H-2A requirements to allow employers to apply for farmworkers earlier and permit workers to stay beyond the three-year maximum. However, the Trump administration did not account for the fact that H-2A workers would be at greater risk of contracting the virus due to systemic flaws in work and housing conditions that have persisted since the inception of the program.

As of early July, 4,539 people had tested positive for COVID-19 and 82 people had died in Collier County, Florida, where the agricultural community of Immokalee is located. This county, home to many H-2A workers, has a positivity rate at 12.9%, significantly higher than the State’s average rate at 8.32%. Furthermore, the virus has hit housing facilities for H-2A workers especially hard. In California, 204 farmworkers tested positive at Villa Las Brisa housing facility and at Alco Harvesting housing facilities, at least 14 workers have been infected and one has died.

The following key factors contribute to this increased vulnerability among H-2A farmworkers during the COVID-10 pandemic:

  • Lack of medical care & testing: COVID testing is voluntary and many farm employers have opted out from testing their workforce. For example, in New Jersey, over 57 farms have barred medical teams from doing on-site testing. There have also been reports of rural hospitals and clinics discouraging H-2A workers from visiting, which is especially dangerous since H-2A workers often have limited access to transportation to pursue alternatives.
  • Crowded Housing: H-2A regulations state employers must provide housing that meets Department of Labor OSHA safety standards. However, many farmworkers report crowded, unsanitary housing conditions that puts them at a greater risk of contracting the virus. Additionally, there have been reports that farmworkers with confirmed cases of COVID-19 have nowhere to isolate on the farm and must be placed elsewhere.
  • Cramped Working Conditions: Recent events in meat and poultry processing facilities have exposed the dangers of working too close together. So far, 16,233 workers at these facilities have tested positive, resulting in 86 deaths. These cramped working conditions are a concern across the agricultural sector, particularly in packing In Yakima, Washington nearly 500 tree fruit packing workers have gotten sick.
  • Fear to report illness: H-2A workers’ visas are tied to their employers, and the program has a long history of employers threatening to deport farmworkers for numerous reasons. This culture of fear can lead to workers remaining silent if they fall ill, putting them and their coworkers at great risk.
  • Cut work hours: Due to limits in the supply chain, employers are letting crops rot in the field, thereby withholding from workers the paid hours they were promised. Strapped for cash, workers may go out into the fields even when they are experiencing symptoms.

The adequacy of employer responses to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has varied from farm to farm. Some employers state they implemented protective measures such as providing PPE, hanging fire-retardant cloth between beds, and increasing sanitation protocols. But even in locations where these new measures are in place, outbreaks have still occurred. In June, late into the agricultural season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Labor issued interim safety guidance and suggested alternative housing plans. Though well-intentioned, these safety guidelines remain voluntary. While some have adopted these measures, others have gone as far as calling COVID-19 a “hoax”.

One legislative response that FLPC supports is Senator Merkley’s Frontline At-Risk Manual (FARM) Laborers Protection Act (S.4042) that was introduced on June 23, 2020. This bill appears to cover H-2A workers and requires agricultural employers to:

  • Provide sick pay for 10 paid days of sick leave
  • Provide pandemic premium pay at an additional $13 per hour
  • Make efforts to maintain payrolls and limit worker layoffs and furloughs
  • Implement CDC recommendations on sanitation and social distancing at worksites, employer-provided housing, and transportation

Recognizing the additional cost of these practices, this bill would provide grants to employers to provide premium pay and purchase equipment.

FLPC also continues to back changes introduced in The Heroes Act (H.R. 6800) that passed the House two months ago. This bill would support farmworkers by helping employers provide premium pay, prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers who share concerns related to COVID-19, and giving government agencies the authority to investigate reports of work-related transmission of the virus.

These bills are critical in ensuring farmworkers (who are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19) have the compensation, and health and safety protections they need while working to keep food reliably available for Americans.

Efforts on all levels needed to reduce $161B in US food waste, says Amanda Little

This article was originally written by and published by The Press of Atlantic City on July 23, 2020.

“Dump potatoes in the rivers. … Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth,” John Steinbeck wrote in “The Grapes of Wrath.” “There is a failure here that topples all our success.”

Steinbeck’s lament against food waste is eerily relevant today, as supply-chain disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic have continued to force farmers to euthanize hogs they can’t sell and bury excess potatoes.

Even before COVID-19, Americans, on average, were tossing away more than a pound of uneaten food per person each day, amounting to some 400 pounds of food thrown out annually. That’s far more than any other wealthy country — about 50% more food waste per capita than France and nearly double that of the U.K. According to U.S. government estimates, the cost of U.S. food waste comes out to $161 billion annually. The environmental costs are abysmal.

So the problem of food waste is certainly not new. But it feels newly flagrant at a time when millions of Americans have lost their jobs and 98% of U.S. food banks are reporting demand increases, with 37% reporting critical shortfalls. What makes such waste even harder to accept is that strategies for preventing it abound at every level of government and from big businesses to individual consumers. Taken together, these strategies could radically reduce the amount of food sent to U.S. landfills. Here’s what should happen in each sphere.

For starters, federal agencies need a more concrete plan for food waste reduction. In 2015, the USDA, EPA and FDA vowed to collaborate to cut food waste by 50% by 2030 — a goal endorsed by the Trump administration in 2018 and repackaged as the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative. The Trump plan identified six “action areas,” such as collaborating with industry and educating consumers, but set no clear timelines or ways of measuring progress. The plan should have specific yearly goals, more robust staffing resources and defined measurement practices. Jean Buzby, the USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison, was vague when I asked her for numbers: “Our data and measurement practices are a developing science,” she told me. “It’s not refined enough at this time to compare (waste reductions in) 2018 versus 2019.” That data science needs rapid development.

One area where congressional policymakers can make a difference is food donation rules. A bill (S.3141) introduced in the Senate last December, by Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey and Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, would expand protections for farmers, restaurants, schools and markets, limiting civil and criminal liability when donating food to populations in need. (Half of food manufacturers, a quarter of retailers and wholesalers, and 40% of restaurants cite liability as a barrier to food donation, according to a Food Waste Reduction Alliance survey.) The act would also allow food-rescue organizations to charge a small amount for delivery, alleviating a cost that often deters them from donating their supplies.

Lawmakers also need to clear up confusion around expiration dates on perishable foods, which vary wildly from state to state. “Date label confusion wastes massive amounts of food,” said Emily Broad Leib, who directs the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. “Supermarkets lose about $1 billion a year from food that expires in theory — but not in reality — before it’s sold.”

There is currently a bill pending in the House (H.R.3981) that would clear up such confusion and cut down on waste. Introduced by Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree and Washington Republican Dan Newhouse in 2019, it would standardize dozens of different date-labeling laws and give consumers a clearer understanding of how long their fresh foods are safe to eat. According to Leib, the act has been shelved during the pandemic, because standardizing data is time consuming and the benefits would not be realized immediately.

Legislators can also think bigger: One idea being pushed by Leib and other advocates is to allow farmers to receive a tax credit, rather than deduction, for donating their surplus to food banks. Enacting such a measure would quickly help move the mountains of uneaten produce, now rotting on farms, to the hundreds of food banks and pantries reporting surges in demand.

States and cities have gone much further on fighting food waste. In California and six other states, bans on organic waste and landfill surcharges have been very effective at reducing waste. Many cities have also create composting programs to reduce food scraps and yard trimmings, which comprise a third of municipal waste streams. Some of these programs are now being threatened due to COVID-related budget cuts.

The private sector is in the best position to push near-term solutions on food waste. The group ReFed, which generates food waste data and analysis, has identified 34 for-profit and nonprofit enterprises helping to solve the waste crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. Among them are Forager, which aims to digitize the food-recovery supply chain, and BlueCart, which helps wholesale suppliers sell to food banks at a discount. Another notable startup, Wasteless, is developing dynamic pricing tools so that grocers can lower the cost of perishables as they get closer to expiring.

Of course, consumers hold the greatest responsibility in reducing food waste. Forty percent of all wasted food comes from homes, and most of what gets tossed is perishable produce, dairy and meats. Cutting down on this means changing our buying behaviors and being more thoughtful about disposal. For example, you can buy mottled or misshapen fruits and vegetables: They taste just as good as perfect-looking produce, and may even be better for you.

“A challenge with reforming consumer behavior is that food waste often arises from virtuous intentions,” such as opting for fresh, healthy foods over processed foods with a longer shelf life, says Darby Hoover, a waste expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The rise of online shopping and apps to reduce food waste can help. Online shoppers tend to have fewer impulse buys and become more deliberate about purchases, which can cut down on waste. Such planning ahead can help retailers limit waste, too.

For decades, Americans have taken overabundance of fresh foods for granted. It took a pandemic to wake us up to our own profligacy. Let’s not squander the opportunity to rein in our waste.

Palantir’s pandemic contracts stir concern ahead of IPO

This article was originally written by April Glaser and published by NBC News on July 22, 2020.  

The private data mining company Palantir is best known for its work with law enforcement agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local police departments, the intelligence community and the Department of Defense. It has received considerable criticism for helping the Trump administration track immigrants.

But in recent months and with the debut of its stock on public markets approaching, Palantir has a new focus: tracking the fast-spreading coronavirus.

According to U.S. procurement records reviewed by NBC News, Palantir has been awarded contracts worth more than $42 million with federal agencies on the pandemic response. That includes two contracts in April worth $24.9 million with the Department of Health and Human Services to build a new platform, HHS Protect, which will aid the White House coronavirus task force’s efforts to track the spread of the virus. HHS awarded Palantir an additional $2 million in May.

The company has also won a contract potentially worth over $10 million with the Department of Homeland Security for coronavirus tracking and a nearly $5 million contract for work on the pandemic response with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The leap from serving law enforcement to mitigating a public health crisis has a cadre of elected officials, immigration advocates and public health experts worried that a company that specializes in sharing information with ICE and the police is poorly positioned to ensure the privacy of sensitive medical records and cultivate the public trust necessary to carry out an effective pandemic response.

Palantir’s history of deportation work is of particular concern to advocates. More than 31 Democratic members of Congress, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Joaquín Castro of Texas, signed two letters at the end of June demanding answers from HHS Secretary Alex Azar about how Palantir will be handling the personal health information of people seeking medical care in the pandemic.

Both letters pointed to Palantir’s arrangements with the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee and Resettlement and ICE that allowed for cross-agency data sharing, which directly led to the arrest and deportation of hundreds of immigrants starting in 2017.

“Trump’s HHS has violated Americans’ trust over and over. The Department must guarantee that this database will not contain personally identifiable information — and that they will put in strong safeguards to ensure it cannot be weaponized by agencies like ICE,” Warren said in an emailed statement.

HHS and Palantir did not respond to requests for comment.

Palantir’s pivot to the pandemic comes as it prepares for an initial public stock offering, a huge milestone for the 15-year-old startup co-founded by Facebook board member Peter Thiel. The company operated almost entirely out of the public eye for years, helping U.S. spy agencies track terrorists by analyzing enormous amounts of data and building deep connections with people in the U.S. government. The company is now valued at around $20 billion.

President Donald Trump’s election proved a turning point for the company, with Thiel emerging as one of Silicon Valley’s most vocal supporters of Trump and his immigration agenda. Palantir’s work with the government, particularly Homeland Security and ICE, became the subject of scrutiny by civil rights organizations that point to the centrality of the company’s software in the conducting of workplace raids and the separation of immigrant families that has led to deportations, which have increased under the Trump administration.

Some of the people behind those organizations see Palantir’s pandemic work as an effort to repair the company’s image ahead of its public stock listing.

“We view Palantir’s foray into health care surveillance as a rebranding process ahead of its IPO,” said Julie Mao, the director of Just Futures, a nonprofit group that supports immigrant rights.

In April, Palantir’s president, Shyam Sankar, called the pandemic the new “driving thrust” of the company.

Robert Greenwald, a professor and the director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at Harvard Law School, said that turning to a firm known for its work in deportation will discourage immigrants from getting the health care they need.

“Companies like Palantir have made their choices and they have gone in a direction that does not make them appropriate for sensitive public health projects,” Greenwald said.

Palantir was awarded the contracts for the coronavirus tracking system without competition, which the agency attributed to the “unusual and compelling urgency” of the pandemic, according to a notice from HHS.

Palantir’s reach into the coronavirus response also extends far beyond the U.S. The company is aiding the national virus response efforts of over a dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, where it received a contract with the National Institutes of Health for just one English pound.

Josh Harris, a vice president at Palantir, told Bloomberg in April that the company is in talks with “several dozen” countries around the world and is making its software available free to governments and international organizations working to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. Palantir has offered its database work free to governments in the past, notably in New Orleans, where it provided pro bono predictive services for the police for six years.

Palantir is reportedly also serving the pandemic response in Greece, Austria, Spain and Canada. The United Nations World Food Program is also using Palantir’s platform in its logistics tracking as it ferries aid to countries that have been hit by COVID-19 outbreaks.

So little is known about the scope of the Palantir contracts for the U.S. government’s pandemic response that Just Futures filed 22 Freedom of Information Act requests last month to learn more about how the company is sharing and handling sensitive health data.

Though HHS has said the data will remain anonymous, Faiza Patel, the co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said data can be de-anonymized, too.

“Our laws for protecting personal health information are really weak,” Patel said, adding that although we have the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, it “has lots of exceptions that are triggered in a situation like a pandemic.”

LGBTQ-affirming health groups sue Trump administration for removing trans protections from Affordable Care Act

This article was written by John Riley originally published by Metro Weekly on July 16, 2020

Lawsuit alleges that rule is unlawful, and will lead to further discrimination against LGBTQ patients and marginalized population

A coalition of LGBTQ and LGBTQ-affirming health care groups has sued the Trump administration over its recently published rule that eliminates Obama-era transgender protections from the Affordable Care Act.

The lawsuit, filed by Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, the National Women’s Law Center, Transgender Law Center, the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School, and the law firm Hogan Lovells on behalf of the plaintiffs, alleges that the new rule violated the Administrative Procedures Act because it is contrary to law, as well as arbitrary and capricious.

The rule itself revises Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act to restrict the definition of discrimination “on the basis of sex,” to instances where a person is denied health care or insurance coverage that would otherwise be granted to others because of their assigned sex at birth.

Under the Obama administration, the prohibition on sex-based discrimination was interpreted as applying to transgender individuals — as well as pregnant individuals and people who fail to conform to gender stereotypes — who would otherwise have been able to obtain medically necessary care but for their gender identity.

But the Trump administration, notably the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has been insistent upon restricting the protections by explicitly defining sex-based discrimination as rooted in a person’s biological sex.

Notably, Roger Severino, the head of HHS’s Office for Civil Rights, has been a chief proponent of the change ever since passage of the Affordable Care Act — something he advocated for prior to joining the Trump administration, when he worked for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

One of the plaintiffs in the case is Darren Lazor, a 35-year-old transgender man from Cleveland, Ohio, who experienced numerous instances of discrimination from health care providers due to his gender identity from 2012 to 2017.

In one of those instances, Lazor, a member of plaintiff organization Equality California, was forced to seek treatment from four different doctors in order to have a large ovarian cyst removed from his uterus, in part because the first three doctors refused to treat him or refused to perform a hysterectomy, which is a legitimate treatment option for the condition.

“I have experienced feeling like a doctor doesn’t care if I live or die — which is just shameful,” Lazor said in a statement. “No one should be denied life-saving health care or be discriminated against the way I have simply because of who they are. I hope that sharing my story can help others understand that transgender people are who we are, and we deserve to be treated fairly under the law.”

Other plaintiffs include: The Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY); the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center of New York City; Fenway Health, a Boston-based federally-qualified health center that specializes in LGBTQ-affirming care; the Campaign for Southern Equality, Equality California, and Transgender Emergency Fund.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue in the lawsuit that the rationale behind the new rule’s stricter definition of sex-based discrimination runs counter to the findings of the U.S. Supreme Court in a recent 6-3 decision finding that LGBTQ people are protected from discrimination in the workplace by federal civil rights law.

The lawsuit also claims the rule will embolden discrimination and further harm several classes of people, including LGBTQ patients, people seeking reproductive health care, and people with chronic illnesses, including those living with HIV, and will create confusion among health care professionals and insurance providers about the extent of law’s protections.

“The abhorrent changes by HHS are yet another illegal attempt by the current administration to further endanger the lives of transgender people, especially Black transgender women who face the greatest challenges with accessing health care,” Andy Marra, the executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, said in a statement.

“Today, with our partners and plaintiffs, TLDEF is challenging these regulations to ensure that explicit health care protections for transgender people remain intact, especially during a pandemic that is placing the lives of those most pushed to the margins at severe risk. We look forward to seeing HHS in court.”

Transgender people already face disproportionate discrimination in health care settings, including mistreatment by insurers and humiliation and harassment by doctors.

Those problems are exacerbated for individuals of color and people living in rural regions, especially in the American South.

The plaintiffs claim that the rule puts people in those vulnerable communities at risk of greater harm by enabling providers to deny them insurance coverage or medically necessary treatment.

“Trans people should be able to seek medical care when we need help without being turned away or denied treatment because of who we are or where we live,” Dale Melchert, a staff attorney at the Transgender Law Center, said in a statement.

“This dangerous and intentional move by the Trump Administration contradicts federal law while putting the lives of trans people in jeopardy — especially trans people living with HIV, Black trans people and people of color, trans people with disabilities, and trans people living in rural areas and in Southern states.”

Episode 68: Exploring Hunger, Waste & Covid’s Impact on the Food Chain

This article was originally written by Liz Bothwell and published by Waste 360 on July 20, 2020.

In our latest episode of NothingWasted!, we chat with Emily Broad Leib, Clinical Professor & Director, Food Law & Policy Clinic (FLPC), Harvard Law School.

The Food Law & Policy Clinic provides legal advice to nonprofits and government agencies seeking to increase access to healthy foods, prevent diet-related diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, and reduce barriers to market entry for small-scale and sustainable food producers, while educating law students about ways to use law and policy to impact the food system.

We spoke with Emily about global food bank trends and laws; organic waste bans; and food waste as it relates to COVID-19, climate change and more.

Here’s a glimpse into Emily’s observations.

On the effects of COVID-19 on hunger:

At the end of 2019 in the U.S., about 11 percent of the population was food insecure. And now that number is 38 percent – people saying they’re not sure they are going to be able to provide all the meals they need in the next few months. And the UN has reported that hunger might double due to COVID-19.

On how COVID-19 has brought to light the importance of food workers:

Workers in the food chain are often invisible, and people don’t think about where food comes from, and all the hands that had to be working in the fields and processing and stocking shelves…this has become a lot more visible. So far, however, we haven’t seen measurable changes that align with that at the federal level. But my hope is now that it’s more in the public consciousness that we’ll see policy changes follow.

On FLPC’s Global Food Donation Policy Atlas:

The last year and a half we’ve been working with the Global FoodBanking Network.They asked us to help analyze and compare laws regarding food donation across countries. The genesis was really that, as concerns about food waste are growing…one big reason food is being wasted is because of policies and laws and government regulations.

So we selected 15 countries and just launched all the materials and maps online for the first five countries—the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Argentina and India. For each country, there is a guide, recommendations, and a map that shows how food safety and labeling laws, liability protection, tax incentives, and more are impacting donations in each place.

On what’s next:

Anyone working in any part of the food system right now is probably seeing rapid changes. As for what’s on my radar…we anticipate that there are going to be some additional pandemic-related stimulus bills at the federal level, so we’ve been focused on the opportunities there. And we’ve been trying to get some changes on the margins to liability protection to make it easier to protect the types of food donation we’ve been seeing during the pandemic.

We’ve also been pushing for additions to the tax incentives for food donations — most notably to create an incentive better suited to farmers. The other piece we’re pushing would be a tax benefit for companies involved in the logistics and transpiration of getting food waste from point A to point B. Another thing that’s important is remembering that this is going to be a marathon, so we have to take the long view. There will be a need and opportunities for those with expertise in different parts of the food system to give input.


Local groups join in legal fight against Trump bid to let doctors, hospitals refuse to treat transgender patients

This article was written by adamg originally published by Universal Hub on July 11, 2020

Fenway Health, the Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts and the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth this week sued the federal government to stop a proposed rule that would let healthcare providers discriminate against transgender people.

The suit, filed in US District Court by plaintiffs who also include a transgender Ohio man and LGBTQ healthcare providers in New York and California, says the proposed federal “rollback” violates the anti-discrimination provisions of the Affordable Care Act and is just “arbitrary and capricious, contrary to law, and in violation of the Constitution.”

The measure is due to go into effect on Aug. 18. In asking a judge to block that, the complaint charges:

The Rollback Rule was promulgated as part of a campaign of consistent, repeated anti-transgender sentiments, advocacy, and comments by the Administration as a whole. …. The Rollback Rule aims to denigrate LGBTQ+ people, particularly transgender people: falsely characterizing them as a threat, spreading misinformation and lies about them, and turning the federal government’s efforts to combat discrimination into efforts to promote discrimination.

The Trump administration published the proposed rule, set to go into effect next month, just days after the Supreme Court ruled employers could not discriminate against gay, lesbian, and transgender workers.

In the suit, the plaintiffs charge the measure would also allow discrimination against people seeking an abortion or even care for a miscarriage or an ectopic pregnancy and would make it harder for people who don’t speak English by lifting a requirement to provide information in other languages.

Pandemic, Growing Need Strain U.S. Food Bank Operations

This article was originally written by Jennifer Smith and published by The Wall Street Journal on July 16, 2020.

Food charities are coping with shortages of some consumer goods, a crush of donations of others and soaring demand as they reset logistics for the Covid-19 pandemic era

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—People start lining up as early as 6 a.m. these days outside an emergency food pantry in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood.

Theresa Gilbert, a 61-year-old in-home care giver waiting in line on a recent scorching-hot day, said money has been tight since March, when she caught a cold on the job and the agency she works for sent her home. She hasn’t worked since, and the food she gets here helps make ends meet.

“Whatever I have, I make it do,” Ms. Gilbert said.

Demand for the free vegetables, milk and canned goods on offer here has surged since the coronavirus pandemic torpedoed the U.S. economy, closing businesses and thrusting millions out of work. Social-services provider Camba Inc., which runs the pantry, said it served more than 18,000 people last month, nearly five times as many as in February, before the virus took hold in the U.S.

The scene is being repeated across the country as the growing need hits food banks and pantries, leading to long lines of people seeking food and straining providers coping with shortages of high-demand products like canned goods even as they handle a crush of produce from sidelined food-service operations. Food-relief organizations are retooling their operations for the Covid-19 era, testing out new distribution tactics, bringing on temporary labor and scrambling to secure storage space to meet a level of need that some say could stretch into next year and beyond.

Hunger-relief organization Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, estimates the pandemic could push an additional 17 million people into what it calls food insecurity this year. More than 82% of U.S. food banks are serving more people than they were last year, with an average increase of 50%, according to a June survey by the group.

“The pandemic is putting pressure on a system that was already struggling to make sure all the food we are producing finds its way to people,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.

Food banks act as the logistics arm for a swath of hunger-relief programs, overseeing supply chains that connect donations to those in need. They recover surplus food from supermarkets, manufacturers, farmers and government agencies and then ship, store and distribute that food to smaller agencies such as food pantries and meal programs.

When the pandemic first hit, consumer stockpiling decimated the supply of shelf-stable products that are the backbone of food-relief efforts. Donations of items like rice and soup dried up, forcing many food banks to buy the goods instead and compete with retailers and other food banks. The products remain in high demand as coronavirus caseloads soar in many U.S. states.

“There is almost a bidding war for some of this product,” said Kristopher Tazelaar, a spokesman for Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin.

One manufacturer told the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank it would only honor 50% of the organization’s outstanding purchase orders. “We had over 80 tractor-trailer loads delayed, shorted or canceled,” said Chief Executive Lisa Scales.

Earlier in the pandemic, Ms. Scales said, the group was hearing from vendors who told them things like: “If the shipping container gets loaded, and if the ship isn’t abandoned at sea, and if they let it dock, and if it clears customs without being seized by [federal authorities], and if we can find trucking, we’ll have your rice there in six weeks.”

Those delayed loads are coming in now, she said, and the volumes are straining the group’s warehouse operations and capacity. The food bank leased space in a nearby convention center in May and June before that site was set to reopen for events.

Like other food banks, it is leasing outside storage space at higher-than-normal levels and has brought on more workers to handle the goods, adding to growing costs.

Earlier this year, the Greater Chicago Food Depository was using the United Center, the home arena for the National Basketball Association’s Chicago Bulls and the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks, as a logistics hub. The organization sent almost 920,000 pounds of food to the arena between late March and late May, when faster distribution of the food boxes reduced its need for extra storage.

Volumes at the Houston Food Bank, the largest in Feeding America’s network, have more than doubled since the pandemic. The group distributed on average 25 trailer loads of food a day in May and June compared with 10 during the same period last year. “We’ve been spending a fortune on trucking,” Chief Executive Brian Greene said.

The group has rented a second warehouse and is securing a third, with more space to accommodate volunteers working under social-distancing requirements. That facility also will have refrigerated storage to accommodate a more than 10 percentage-point jump in donated produce since the pandemic shut down much of the U.S. restaurant and food-service industries.

“The building doesn’t just grow,” said Mr. Tazelaar of Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, which is trying to secure more cooler and freezer space. “Our partner agencies, a lot of them are doing it with the freezer you might have down in your basement.”

Once goods reach pantries, social-distancing requirements are complicating distribution. Some groups are switching from their usual supermarket-type setups, where people pick out the goods they want, to drive-up operations, in which workers assemble boxes ahead of time and place them in people’s trunks.

Organizations seeking to reach seniors and people in home quarantine are sometimes working with big digital operators focused on residential delivery. Inc. is donating delivery services to food banks across the U.S. through its network of Amazon Flex drivers. DoorDash Inc., known for its restaurant deliveries, adapted its software to accommodate bulk food orders and batched delivery routes through partnerships with government agencies, restaurants and nonprofits.

New York City-based Camba, which relies on a mix of donations and purchased goods, said earlier shortfalls of basic items like milk are easing. Recently, the group received funding from a state program aimed at rerouting surplus agricultural products from New York dairy farmers and growers to food banks.

Much of the milk, yogurt and produce the group gets now is given out the day it is delivered, said Janet Miller, Camba’s senior vice president. “Everything is kind of just-in-time.”

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