WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Alaska's low-income families should receive additional food donations soon under a U.S. Agriculture Department program.
The Agriculture Department announced this week that it would purchase $126.4 million in fruits and vegetables to be distributed nationwide through food banks and other local agencies associated with them. Typically, the money appropriated for the program is doled out in segments throughout the year, and the $126 million is the first installment.
"The need for emergency food assistance has outpaced the supply at a difficult economic time for Alaskans and Americans," Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement. "Providing food banks and their partners with a healthier, wider inventory to help meet the nutritional needs in many Alaskan communities is a good thing. This decision will not only help feed more Alaskans but it will help them eat more of the right food."
Murkowski helped lead the effort that ended with the Agriculture Department deciding to purchase the food under The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). The program draws from a federal emergency fund to buy surplus food from American farmers for distribution through food banks when economic conditions show increased need among low-income citizens.
The food to be purchased includes tart cherries, apples, cranberries, fresh tomatoes, wild blueberries and raisins, the Agriculture Department announced.
"The fact that the Agriculture secretary made the decision to purchase surplus produce for charity providers ... is just another confirmation that the recession is not over and too many Americans continue to hurt economically," said Matthew Felling, a Murkowski spokesman.
The Anchorage-based Food Bank of Alaska is expected to participate in the food distribution, he said. The amount of food each state receives from the Agriculture Department depends on the number of its unemployed residents and persons living below the poverty level. Each state has the discretion to set income standard that would make low-income persons eligible for the food donations.
For previous TEFAP funds, the state of Alaska determined that households under 185 percent of the national poverty level are eligible for the food assistance, Felling said.
After the Agriculture Department delivers the food to food banks, it typically is distributed to charitable pantries and soup kitchens serving low-income families. Other local agencies associated with the Food Bank of Alaska include schools, churches and tribes.
"They can always call 2-1-1 for food referral information and they can direct them to a pantry in their area," said Michael Miller, executive director of the Food Bank of Alaska. "While it is available both in urban and rural areas, what makes TEFAP so important to Alaska is it is one of the only consistent and available emergency food programs available in rural areas."
Another goal of the TEFAP program is to stabilize agricultural commodity prices by purchasing surplus farm products, helping balance supply and demand. Other products the Agriculture Department purchased under TEFAP last year included catfish, turkey and chicken.
Congress appropriated $311.34 for TEFAP in fiscal 2013.
A group of U.S. senators wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last August urging him to use emergency funding to provide food for low-income persons.
"Thirty-seven million people -- one in eight Americans -- are now receiving emergency food assistance each year through the nation's food banks," said the letter, which was signed by Murkowski and 23 other senators.