(CNSNews.com) - As Congress mulls emergency unemployment benefits for 1.3 million can't-find-a-job Americans, the U.S. Agriculture Department announced it will spend $126 million on surplus fruits and vegetables as part of The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) for needy families.
On Monday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the money will be spent on tart (sour) cherries, processed apples, cranberries, fresh tomatoes, wild blueberries, and raisins.
"Food distribution programs are a vital part of our nation's nutrition safety net, and today's food purchases will give communities additional means to help those in need," Vilsack said. He urged Congress to "adequately support feeding programs for American families" by passing a farm bill "as soon as possible."
Foods distributed through TEFAP are purchased with funds appropriated specifically for TEFAP ($311.34 million in Fiscal Year 2013). In addition to those funds, TEFAP buys surplus food ($228.51 million in FY 2013) to support American agricultural markets.
The purchase announced on Monday is part of USDA's "surplus removal program," which allows the government to stabilize prices in agricultural commodity markets by "balancing supply and demand" -- buying extra food to support prices and feeding low-income people at the same time.
TEFAP sends the food to states for distribution to local food banks, which in turn send the items to food pantries and soup kitchens. The amount of food sent to each state is based on the number of unemployed persons in that state and people living below the poverty level.
Products purchased in the past year include fruit, vegetables, catfish, lamb, turkey, and chicken.
Many TEFAP households may also be eligible for food and nutrition assistance through other USDA programs.
The USDA says its Food and Nutrition Service oversees the administration of 15 nutrition assistance programs, including TEFAP, SNAP, WIC, that touch the lives of one in four Americans over the course of a year. "These programs work together to form a national safety net against hunger," the news release said.
TEFAP was first authorized as the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program in 1981 to distribute surplus commodities to households. The name was changed to The Emergency Food Assistance Program in the 1990 farm bill. The program was intended to reduce federal food inventories and storage costs while assisting the needy.
But stocks of some surplus foods had been depleted by 1988. That's when Congress passed the Hunger Prevention Act, which authorized funds to be appropriated for the purchase of commodities specifically for TEFAP. Foods acquired with appropriated funds are in addition to any surplus commodities purchased through USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service to support American agricultural markets.