Cultivating a Multi-pronged Perspective of Opportunities and Challenges of the Emergency Food Assistance Program

Clara PittEmerson, Field, Updates

Above: Bea Dresser and Clara Pitt at the Feeding America Office in Washington, D.C., February 2023

Prior to my policy placement, I had never heard of the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), let alone read its codified regulations in the Federal Register. But once I got to Feeding America that all changed quite rapidly.

Feeding America is the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States, with a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, 21 statewide food bank associations, and over 60,000 agency partners. In 2022, the network helped provide 5.2 billion meals to tens of millions of people in need1. Aligned with the approach of the Emerson Fellowship, the organization bridges a connection to direct service hunger relief work with political action and advocacy to improve and expand federal nutrition programs.

My placement with Feeding America has been with the policy team, which – fun fact – currently has four Emerson Fellowship alums on their team. Initially, my work plan was primarily focused on updating a state policy resource related to TEFAP, though once my placement started, the scope of my work quickly expanded.

TEFAP is a means-tested federal nutrition program that provides food commodities at no cost to eligible, low-income individuals and families through organizations such as food banks, pantries, soup kitchens, and emergency shelters. Although TEFAP is a federal program, each state administers TEFAP differently, which creates a huge variation in each state’s program implementation and recipient reach2. Each state agency that administers TEFAP is responsible for determining how TEFAP will be distributed in their state, setting the income eligibility, distribution frequency, contracting with food banks and other “recipient agencies,” and more.

Going into the placement, I felt intrigued to be working on this topic, considering its significance to the Feeding America Network. TEFAP foods account for 30% of all food distributed through the Feeding America network of food banks3. Further, the Feeding America network is the largest TEFAP participant, “with approximately 96% of Feeding America partner food banks receiving and distributing TEFAP foods in the fiscal year 2022”4. Feeding America food banks receive TEFAP foods through their states and then distribute the food to local organizations, including food pantries, meal programs, and shelters.

My main project throughout my time with Feeding America has been updating the TEFAP State Guide. This document provides contextual information about TEFAP, the federal regulations, and the regulations for how TEFAP is administered in each state. The last time the document was updated was in February of 2020 (an unfortunate time to release a document), and there is no other similar resource. The guide is the only place where food bankers and state agencies can compare their state to the TEFAP state regulations for other states, which can be a key talking point and resource for administrative advocacy at the state level.

During my first week at Feeding America, there was a staffing transition that left my supervisor and I tasked with leading an in-progress grant for food banks and food bank associations that administer TEFAP. This grant, and its monthly Community of Practice calls, was created to have a space for information sharing and collaborative learning between TEFAP administrators and advocates in different states. On the fourth day of my placement with Feeding America, I was called on to create the presentation for the monthly TEFAP Community of Practice call and then lead part of a webinar.

Since that fateful Friday, I have prepared and run each of the monthly webinars for the grantees and served as the main contact for the group of grantees. This opportunity, though not initially part of my work plan, has greatly complemented the work I have been doing with the TEFAP State Guide. It quickly became clear to me that this grantee group, and other food bankers administering TEFAP, were the target audience of the guide I was working on and would greatly benefit from it being updated. Many of the questions they were asking, the challenges they were facing, and the resources they requested from Feeding America could be located in the updated version of the guide. As such, I began working closely with the grantees to brainstorm what other resources I should add to the guide and how we could collaborate to make it as useful as possible.

As I continued working closely with the grantees and became more familiar with TEFAP, I was given the opportunity to help plan and attend a conference about the distribution of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodities. The conference, led by the American Commodity Distribution Association (ACDA) would be a place for key stakeholders from every part of the USDA food commodity supply chain to meet, share information and best practices, and network. USDA officials, food industry representatives, state agencies, school district recipient agencies, food bankers, and allied organizations would be in attendance.

At the conference, I met many grantees in person and other stakeholders who work closely with TEFAP at various levels. There were sessions about TEFAP ordering, procurement, and forecasting, TEFAP Reach and Resiliency Grants, innovations in the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), and more. I gained perspectives on different aspects of the TEFAP supply chain that I hadn’t previously had exposure to, learned more about the issues impacting the supply chain, and had many conversations with food bankers and state agency representatives about my update of the TEFAP State Guide. See a photo below of one of the sessions I planned for the conference!

Above: Katherine Gendron, Central California Food Bank, presenting at the American Commodity Distribution Association Conference in Anaheim, CA, April 2023

Returning to DC after the conference, I found that the knowledge I picked up greatly influenced my understanding of how my work and the role of Feeding America fits into the larger picture of other federal nutrition programs, the commodity distribution supply chain, and in the anti-hunger sector more broadly. These perspectives will greatly inform the work I continue to do through the remainder of my time with Feeding America, including writing a response to a USDA proposed rule about TEFAP that will shape policies that directly influence how food is distributed to Feeding America food banks and neighbors.

My initial impetus to apply for this fellowship was to gain a nuanced and multi-pronged perspective of anti-hunger work in the United States. Although that sounds good in theory, at this time last year, I didn’t have a clear idea of what that would mean or look like. Now, with two and a half months left of the fellowship, I can confidently say that this fellowship has provided me with experiences that have exceeded my expectations and given me a nuanced perspective on the anti-hunger space. I am excited to continue to expand my knowledge of federal nutrition policies and leadership skills over the remaining months of my time in DC and see how I will apply my gained capabilities, relationships, and expertise to continue to become a leader in this space.

Clara Pitt
Above: Clara Pitt with Feeding America Network Members at the American Commodity Distribution Association Conference, Anaheim, CA.

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About the Authors

Pitt headshot

Clara Pitt

Emerson Fellow

Originally from Los Angeles, California, Clara recently graduated from Vassar College with a Bachelor’s of Arts and honors in Environmental Studies. While at Vassar, she spent her time exploring the intersection between visual arts, environmentalism, and behavioral science as means of creating climate action accessibility. In 2021, inspired to move intellectually past her history of disordered eating and dietary restrictions, Clara worked with a team of researchers and local residents to study how to make the New York City food system more affordable, equitable, just, and sustainable. She and a peer wrote a cookbook based on their research titled "A Bite of the Big Apple: A Food Justice Cookbook." As an Emerson Fellow, Clara hopes to work at the intersection of climate and food justice and support making healthy foods accessible while building more sustainable and equitable food systems.

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