Food assistance

Washington State Department of Agriculture Director Derek Sandison talks to the media at a food warehouse Aug. 7 in Fife. Citing covid-19, the department proposes almost doubling state spending on emergency food assistance for at least the next two years, possibly longer.

OLYMPIA — Covid-19 pandemic disruptions to the economy and food supply will linger for years, requiring an increase in state spending on food banks, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

The department has proposed spending $11.5 million annually on emergency food assistance for at least two years, possibly longer. The allocation would nearly double the current budget for food and to help charities operate.

“The impact and hurt caused by covid-19 are pretty open-ended at this point,” department spokesman Chris McGann said. “As soon as unemployment improves and stabilizes, we anticipate being able to pull back.”

The agriculture department mobilized last spring to help food banks handle a surge in demand, spending $75 million in emergency state and federal aid.

The economic troubles are not short term, according to the department’s proposal. In a memo to the governor’s budget office, the department asserts the higher demand for food assistance will last indefinitely.

“We anticipate record numbers of people will rely on food pantries for years to come as we move into recovery and longer-term economic crisis,” the request for funding states.

Pandemic interruptions in the processing, packaging and distributing of food also will linger, according to the department.

“Recovery in this industry will take years, meaning that the food supply chains and agricultural producers that serve the food service industry will also take years to recover,” according to the request for money.

Food banks will need to hire more people, rather than rely on volunteers, who are typically senior citizens, according to the budget request.

The department also asserted that grocers are donating less food, as stores try to keep their shelves stocked.

Washington Food Industry Association vice president Tammie Hetrick disputed the claim. Grocers have continued to contribute to food banks and there’s no reason to think they won’t in the future, she said.

“Covid disrupted every aspect of (food) production,” she said. “I’m not sure you can make a fair assessment for long-term relief by tying it to covid.”

“We need to look at what our demand is and evaluate it again in a year,” Hetrick said.

Hetrick did praise the agriculture department for helping recipients of federal food assistance buy groceries online.

The federal government has increased spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In August, nearly 300,000 Washington households received $52 million in addition to regular benefits, according to the USDA.

The state agriculture department proposes to add one employee with an annual salary of $65,331. According to the budget proposal, the department would seek to connect farmers and food banks.

Northwest Harvest, a nonprofit that assists food banks across the state, relies on private donors, not government funding. Policy director Christina Wong said state spending on food banks could help the nonprofit if some of the money went to buy food from farmers.

“The more support for growers who we work with, the better for us if it keeps them in business,” she said.

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