TOPEKA — The pace of work by volunteers filling boxes Friday with peaches, rolled oats, apple juice, pasta, spinach and peanut butter slowed briefly at Harvesters’ regional food warehouse when a rookie wearing a suit and tie took a place in the packaging line.
An interruption by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts was temporary because the Kansas Republican was on hand to share insights into the value of federal support of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. Harvesters, a network of nonprofits feeding 140,000 people each month, is among U.S. organizations responsible for boxing the commodities for low-income elderly persons in 16 counties in Kansas and 10 counties in Missouri.
“This program is among several important nutrition assistance programs that are part of the farm bill,” said Roberts, chairman of the Senate’s agriculture committee. “We’re going to use this reauthorization as an opportunity to take a close look at all programs in the farm bill and make sure they are operating efficiently and effectively. We’re here today talking and listening to program stakeholders.”
Roberts met privately with officials at Harvesters and a dozen other groups involved in the food industry, including Kansas Food Bank, Dairy Farmers of America, Wyandotte Health Foundation, Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas Farm Bureau, Johnson County Health Department and Dillons Food Stores.
Approximately a dozen people staffing the box-packaging line during Roberts’ appearance included volunteers of Dillons grocery stores in Topeka.
Tyler Stephan, manager of the Dillons store at S.W. 10th and Gage, said employees of the Hutchinson-based grocery chain volunteered at Harvesters four to six times annually. For the past five years, he said, they’ve pitched in to assemble boxes of food for seniors or backpacks of food for children.
“We’re helping the community that we serve,” Stephan said. “And, we get some team building.”
Harvesters has joined with the Kansas Food Bank and the Second Harvest Community Food Bank to create the Association of Kansas Food Banks, which brings together 750 food pantries, community kitchens and homeless shelters working to address food insecurity throughout Kansas.
The association reported two-thirds of households served by the association have had to choose between paying for food or utilities. In addition, the association said, more than half had to decide between food and paying the rent or mortgage.
At Harvesters, the top legislative priority is preservation of federal funding for the nation’s safety net of nutrition programs, including food stamps, known as SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides food to shelters, kitchens and food banks; and CSFP, the monthly food packages to low-income seniors older than age 60.
Roberts said political pressure to reduce overall federal spending could influence debate about these food-security programs.
“Yes, we will have to meet our budget figures,” the senator said. “But, we can do so in a way where we achieve efficiencies, I think, as opposed to major cuts. Everybody thinks these programs are for urban areas. They’re not. They’re for the entire country. We find the same kind of conditions in rural and small-town America.”
Roberts said a bipartisan coalition of urban and rural lawmakers in Congress would be necessary to approve a new farm bill incorporating food nutrition and agriculture production policy.
The administration of President Donald Trump has emphasized renegotiation of trade agreements that could harm the rural economy, he said.
“We have to have a very robust trade policy,” Roberts said. “I know we have to export things that we make, and I know the president really wants to focus on that. We have to export things we grow. Right now, Russia exports more wheat than we do. Brazil exports more soybeans than we do. We’ve never quite been in that situation before. So, we have an urgent need to export our products.”