BY EMMA PHELPS
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE
The House and Senate will soon vote on concurrent bills establishing a Virginia Food Assistance Fund program to help farmers and food banks.
One bill, SB 1188, sponsored by Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, would provide grants to Virginia farmers to mitigate the production, packaging and transport costs of donating excess produce to local food banks.
The concurrent bill, HB 2203, is sponsored by House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax.
“This bill is going to have a good impact and provide excellent support for many of our farmers and our farming communities,” Hashmi said. “It’s also going to serve the need of critically helping our food banks, as which you can imagine, are really seeking to expand support and resources during the COVID crisis.”
Virginia’s agricultural community makes up a large part of Hashmi’s district in Powhatan and part of Chesterfield. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and food supply chain disruptions, the farming community is in need of help, Hashmi said.
Hashmi worked closely with Eddie Oliver, the executive director of The Federation of Virginia Food Banks, who collaborated with Gov. Ralph Northam’s office to include the program in his proposed 2021 budget.
“It’s [the VFAF program] just part of our larger initiative to strengthen the regional food system, while improving the nutritional quality of the food that goes out to folks,” Oliver said. “We have seen an increase of about 25% demand for the number of people coming to our pantries for food assistance over the last year.”
According to a report from Feeding America, an estimated 275,000 Virginians are facing food insecurity this year as a result of the pandemic, so the timing of this bill is important, Oliver said.
Hashmi’s bill passed the Senate unanimously on Feb. 1, and Filler-Corn’s bill passed the House in a 97-3 vote on Jan. 28.
Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, was one of the three delegates to vote against Filler-Corn’s bill.
“HB2203 really does not do anything that cannot already be done,” Cole said in an email. “Farmers can already donate food if they wish to, people can already donate money to pay for food donations if they want, so why do we need this bill?”
Oliver mentioned that previous initiatives to aid farmers have not been sufficient in bringing more local produce to Virginia food banks.
“Virginia passed a food crop donation tax credit in 2016 for Virginia growers who donate product, and it provides a state tax credit of up to $5,000 per individual, per year,” Oliver said. “We have worked with some of our partners in the industry to promote that and we really see this [VFAF] program working in tandem with that.
“Again, the main barrier has been paying these fixed costs to harvest the product, and the tax credit isn’t available to them [farmers] up-front. With this [grant] money available to them up-front to pay those fixed costs, we feel that we can leverage more of a tax credit.”
Some of Virginia’s largest industry groups would also benefit from the new legislation. The Virginia Farm Bureau and the Virginia Agribusiness Council, who already work with the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, are in both support of the bill, Oliver said.
Hashmi’s bill was reported from the House Appropriations Committee on Monday, and Filler-Corn’s bill is set to be heard in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources.