April 30, 2014
By Hody Nemes
Buried deep in the Farm Bill are provisions to increase the amount of kosher and halal food the government sends to soup kitchens and food banks. But three months after the bill’s passage, kosher and halal-friendly food agencies are still waiting see whether the USDA’s new program will be effective.
The kosher and halal provisions of the farm bill target the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, which buys food in bulk and distributes it — free of charge — to food banks and soup kitchens across America. Under the new law, the agency is required to purchase certified kosher and halal products — as long as they cost the same as uncertified food. It must also start tracking the kosher and halal products it buys to ensure the food ends up in places where it is most needed.
“For any family that stands in a soup kitchen line that relies on kosher or halal food, this is a big deal,” said Triada Stampas, senior director of government relations at the Food Bank For New York City, an emergency food provider that serves the more than 1.3 million New Yorkers who don’t have enough to eat. “This carries the potential for greater variety and quantity” of kosher and halal food available at soup kitchens and food banks, she said.
But not everyone is convinced that the law will have a major impact. Alexander Rapaport, who operates the Masbia network of kosher soup kitchens, is concerned about the law’s requirement that kosher food purchased by the government be “cost neutral.”
What Rapaport really needs is kosher animal protein — especially beef, chicken, and fish, which are popular with his clients. But kosher animal products rarely cost the same as their non-kosher counterparts. “If [the USDA] put out a bid for chicken, what are the chances that a kosher bid comes in at cost neutral?” he said. “’Cost neutral’ means ‘good luck.’”
Most soup kitchens receive a large amount of free meat from the USDA’s program, but kosher programs like Masbia end up buying their meat, which takes a large toll on their budget. “Our biggest bill in our $2 million budget is for kosher protein — more than the rent we pay, more than anything,” he said. “When it comes to protein, we’re at a loss.”
Rapaport emphasized that he supports this provision of the farm bill and even lobbied for it in Washington. But he doubts he will see major benefits from the new legislation as long as kosher meat is too expensive for the USDA to buy.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s going to really drastically help us.”
But according to Stampas, the provision would never have made it into law if it hadn’t used that thorny “cost neutral” requirement. Lawmakers spent two years wrangling over the farm bill, and many — especially House Republicans — were eager to cut the bill’s cost; the final bill slashed $8.6 billion over 10 years from the food stamp program, which costs about $80 billion annually.
“That cost neutrality ended up being crucial,” Stampas said. “This amendment was written in a way that it couldn’t get dismissed on a cost basis.”
According to Stampas, the provision also passed thanks to the efforts of a coalition of groups, including UJA-Federation of NY, Food Bank of New York City, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which led the effort. The measure received the backing of two Democratic New York members of Congress, Rep. Joseph Crowley and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Stampas agreed with Rapaport that finding cost neutral kosher meat will be a challenge for the USDA. But she is hopeful that the agency will be able to find cheap kosher fish like tuna and salmon. “In our communications with them, the USDA seems most optimistic about being able to find kosher fish products that are cost neutral,” she said.
In fact, the USDA began a pilot project to buy kosher canned salmon even before the farm bill’s passage. The agency has succeeded in finding cost neutral kosher salmon and expects to begin delivering the fish to distributors in July, according to USDA spokeswoman Brooke Hardison.
Kosher food providers are also optimistic about the farm bill’s new requirement that kosher food be tracked and labeled. Under the current USDA system, neither the USDA nor local food banks know whether a shipment of food provided by the agency will be kosher. Without knowing the kosher status of the foods it provides, the USDA is unable to send kosher foods to the cities with high numbers of poor observant Jews. “[We] said to the USDA, ‘When you get kosher stuff, send it to places where it is needed,” said Rapaport. “If you get pork and salmon, send the pork to Arkansas and the salmon to New York. Send the food strategically.”
If all goes well with the inventorying plan, kosher and halal food will be distributed more strategically and food banks and soup kitchens will see an uptick in the amount of kosher food available to them.
The USDA has yet to roll out the new kosher-halal program, so whether the legislation will be effective remains to be seen. The secretary of agriculture is required to introduce the new program “[a]s soon as practicable.” Stampas said the USDA has been proactive in creating a plan of implementation, but that it may take time to find kosher food companies large enough to meet the government’s purchasing needs.
Hardison, the USDA spokeswoman, said she did not know when the plan might be finalized, but that the “USDA continues to work on a plan to implement.”
Rapaport understands that it may take some time to implement the new system. But he already has his eye on the next farm bill, which won’t be under consideration until 2018, hoping that it will drop the “cost-neutral” requirement that prevents the government from seeking out more expensive kosher proteins. “Let’s hope the next bill will say the government should go out and procure kosher intentionally,” he said.
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