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At St. Paul Park meeting, food shelves tout value of farm bill's food programs

A group of food shelf advocates and others gathered at Friends in Need Food Shelf April 18 for a meeting with staff from Sen. Al Franken's office to discuss the federal farm bill. The legislation funds food and nutrition programs and is up for renewal this year. Leading the discussion (at right) is Al Juhnke, a Franken agriculture staffer and former state lawmaker. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente1 / 2
Michelle Rageth, executive director of the Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park, discusses how the food shelf benefits from programs in the federal farm bill. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente2 / 2

Michelle Rageth rattled off what sounded like an entire grocery list:

Beef stew, fresh oranges and tomatoes, apple juice, canned carrots and green beans, spaghetti sauce, fresh pears and potatoes, pasta, pistachios -- and the list went on.

Those and other items were all healthy foods that were supplied recently to the Friends in Need Food Shelf through a federal food program.

Rageth and other area food shelf advocates hope that federal program -- The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP -- and another food supply program will see continued funding.

"It's been a real help for us," Rageth, Friends in Need's executive director, told staff of U.S. Sen. Al Franken at a meeting last week.

Franken staffers held the meeting at Friends in Need in St. Paul Park to gather public comment on the farm bill, a large piece of federal legislation that includes food, energy, conservation, farming, agriculture and research programs.

The current five-year farm bill expires Oct. 1 and the Senate could take up a renewal of the bill as early as this summer. The bill is drafted by the Senate Agriculture Committee and authorizes spending for U.S. Department of Agriculture programs. It includes programs that pay farmers for their crops and other farm programs, but nearly three-fourths of spending under the farm bill deals with food and nutrition programs.

Many of those programs are used in Minnesota, said Al Juhnke, a former state lawmaker who serves as Franken's point man on agriculture in Minnesota. The largest may be the food stamp program, which totaled $767 million in Minnesota last year. Others include the TEFAP, a supplemental food program for elderly and low income children, a fresh fruit and vegetable program and grants to nonprofits to improve access to locally grown food to low-income people.

Rageth's comments about the importance of TEFAP were shared by another food shelf director, Cathy Maes, who leads the LCA Food Shelf in Minnetonka.

Maes said the emergency food program provides up to 10 percent of her food shelf's supply of canned foods and fresh fruits and vegetables.

"That's farmers bringing us really good food," Maes said.

TEFAP is funded by the farm bill. States order the food and it is distributed by Second Harvest, a food shelf supplier.

"For us, it's free," Rageth said.

Minnesota orders about 10 million to 12 million pounds of food a year through TEFAP, a state official said. As the economy soured and more people turned to food shelves for help, use of TEFAP has increased in Minnesota and elsewhere in recent years, officials said.

The increased supply may not continue, however.

Reductions in domestic federal spending are likely, including in the farm bill, Juhnke said. A new farm bill proposal already has been drafted by key senators, but most in the Senate have not yet seen the new bill, so it's not clear how programs such as TEFAP will be affected.

"There's cuts coming," Juhnke said of farm bill programs. "Everything's on the table."

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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