Tennessee Recovers Millions in Farm and Food Bank Funding After Federal Grant Fumble | Civil Eats

Tennessee Recovers $7.2 Million in Farm and Food Bank Funding After Federal Grant Fumble

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture missed a USDA grant deadline to allow food banks to buy from local farmers. Tennessee lawmakers turned to the state’s budget to restore the $7.2 million in lost funding.

Kelsey Keener feeds chickens at Sequatchie Cove Farm. (Photo credit: Sarah Unger)

Kelsey Keener feeds chickens at Sequatchie Cove Farm. (Photo credit: Sarah Unger)

April 18, 2024 update: On Thursday afternoon, Tennessee lawmakers passed the state’s $52.8 billion budget, which restores $7.2 million in lost funding for small farmers, families and food banks. More details are in this update from Food as a Verb.

Kelsey Keener, 36, oversees a few thousand Novogen laying hens on his 300-acre Sequatchie Cove Farm, nestled alongside the Sequatchie River at the tail end of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, about 30 miles outside of Chattanooga. Selling eggs, beef, and produce to local restaurants and markets, he is the third of four generations working the land. Like those before him, Keener is always asking himself, “How can we honor the land? And how can we honor others while supporting ourselves?”

So when he got word of a new $8.2 million grant trickling into his corner of the world, Keener was intrigued.

“This one caught my eye,” he remembers. “Funding for food banks to buy local?”

In December 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a new program called Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement, or LFPA, which would ultimately direct $900 million in American Rescue Plan funding to participating states, territories, and tribes, allowing them to purchase food from small farmers to distribute to food pantries and food bank clients.

As 2022 unfolded, 82 states, territories, and tribes signed on, ultimately receiving millions in LFPA funding to strengthen farm-to-family programs in their communities.

Tennessee received $8.2 million to allow the state’s five Feeding America food banks to purchase more than 1 million pounds of food—beef, eggs, leafy greens, even rare items like apples and honey—to distribute among 300 partner organizations for families and individuals in need. All of it supported 115 small farmers, who could use the steady income to expand or solidify operations, hire extra help, and even pay down debt. Keener called it “a prayer answered.”

“Now, food banks could build direct relationships with local farmers, feeding people in need with the freshest, most nutritious food possible, and the farmers could increase profitability and even expand production to meet the needs,” Keener said. “For us, this was incredible.”

Beginning in 2023, thanks to LFPA funding, Keener and his farm sold beef and approximately 600 dozen eggs a week, at retail price, to the Chattanooga Area Food Bank (CAFB), which used LFPA funding to work with six other regional farmers, securing food for 38 partner agencies.

“Food banks could build direct relationships with local farmers, feeding people in need with the freshest, most nutritious food possible, and the farmers could increase profitability and even expand production.”

“Eggs, beef, mountains of produce,” said Jeannine Carpenter, CAFB’s director of advocacy.

In late 2022, CAFB received $820,000 from Tennessee’s $8.2 million, or approximately 8 percent of its budget, for distribution in 2023.

“That’s a huge percentage,” said Carpenter. “The program allowed us to purchase locally grown or produced goods at retail price.”

Thanks to the new $7-per-dozen-egg contract with CAFB, Keener scaled up production, hired extra help, and made plans to install a new egg-sorting facility.

“It was pretty major,” he said. “It was really good timing. We were already growing and wanting to grow. Now, we could maybe grow a little bit faster.”

But while Keener was grateful, he was also quietly skeptical. This is too good to be true, Keener thought to himself. And while he knew the grant was temporary, not permanent, he could never have imagined the way the funding would end in Tennessee.

In September 2022, one year after announcing the initial grant, the USDA announced a second round of funding: the LFPA Plus. All the states, tribes, and territories that participated in the original LFPA funding could apply for more funding for 2024. Tennessee, for example, was eligible to receive another $7.2 million in LFPA Plus funding to continue the farm-to-food-bank-to-families program.

Emails announcing LFPA Plus went unread, unnoticed, or unreceived altogether. The USDA says notifications were multiple and frequent; TDA says officials there missed them all.

The initial deadline to apply was March 31, 2023. But Tennessee’s Department of Agriculture (TDA) did not apply. The USDA extended the deadline to May 12, 2023. TDA missed that deadline, too.

By the time TDA officials realized their mistake, which happened in late September, it was too late. The USDA denied an extension, according to Corinne Gould, TDA’s assistant commissioner for public affairs, and Tennessee ultimately lost out on $7.2 million in funding for farmers, all because of an apparent oversight.

Emails announcing LFPA Plus went unread, unnoticed, or unreceived altogether. The USDA says notifications were multiple and frequent; TDA says officials there missed them all.

Along with Tennessee, only two other states—Nevada and Idaho—did not apply for LFPA Plus; Idaho told Civil Eats they intentionally did not apply, and Nevada officials said they were not aware of the program until after the deadline..

Across Tennessee, the question emerged: How does a state agency charged with supporting farmers somehow miss multiple deadlines to apply for a $7.2 million grant? As many struggle to figure out what exactly went wrong, advocates and lawmakers are scrambling to introduce legislation that would help make up for the lost funds and provide farmers and food banks with some of the resources needed to keep working together.

Feeling the Impacts

Because the funding was so significant, Keener kept in close contact with food bank officials. “The program ended abruptly,” he said. “Now, we are selling our eggs to the food bank at a $2 per dozen loss and scrambling to find new local restaurants and independent grocers to fill the gaps.”

The egg sorting facility, which would have helped them increase efficiency to secure large-chain grocers, never got built, he said.

One county over from the Keeners, Jane Mauldin grows grapes, apples, and berries. The owner of Wheeler’s Orchard and Vineyard, a family farm in Sequatchie County, said the first LFPA grant allowed regional food pantries to purchase some $30,000 in apples from her orchard. “Apples are one of the most sought out items by food banks because they really are good keepers.”

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Mauldin, who supplied apples to multiple food pantries from the fall of 2023 into the winter of 2024, said the $30,000 was a “big chunk” of funding for the year. She used it to pay down debt, install a walk-in cooler and commercial kitchen, and repair vehicles and a bulldozer used to clear land for a new orchard.

“It was a godsend to be able to deliver fresh, very nutrient-dense local food to the most vulnerable people in our society,” she said. “There were weeks when [the food pantry director] told me, ‘This is the only fresh produce we have to give out.’”

A produce box from the Chattanooga Area Food Bank. (Photo credit: Sarah Unger)

A produce box from the Chattanooga Area Food Bank. (Photo credit: Sarah Unger)

When the food pantry director she was working with delivered the news of the missed grant application, “He was very distraught,” Mauldin remembers. “[LFPA] allowed them to not only buy our fresh apples, but buy eggs and protein—like good local protein—which, traditionally, food banks have done non-perishables and canned goods.”

“The lack of these funds will impact the quality and nutritional density of the foods that we are able to offer to our hunger relief partners.”

For Mauldin, the loss was unexpected, but not crippling.

“I wouldn’t say that we went out and increased our capacity just because of this grant. However, having expected the grant, we did make plans for this year based on the fact that we would continue this grant. It still impacts our business,” she said.

Food banks and pantries, however, felt an immediate impact. With LFPA, Chattanooga officials were able to purchase roughly 330,000 pounds of locally grown food. Losing LFPA Plus equates to approximately $700,000 in missing funds and an approximate loss of some 250,000 pounds of local goods.

“As a food bank, we are devastated,” said Carpenter of the Chattanooga food bank. “The lack of these funds will impact the quality and nutritional density of the foods that we are able to offer to our hunger relief partners and, ultimately, to food insecure Tennesseans.”

What Happened—and What Now?

Officials in Idaho “decided not to apply” for LFPA Plus because “none of the funds from the first round had been spent at the time,” said AJ McWhorter, public information officer for Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. And despite receiving more than $4 million in LFPA funds, Nevada officials were unaware LFPA Plus existed.

“The Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA) was not aware of the LFPA Plus funding opportunity,” said Patricia Hoppe, NDA’s Division of Food and Nutrition administrator. The state agency said they learned about the program through one of their food banks.

Through it all, TDA has claimed the missed deadline was an accident—caused partially by poor communication from the USDA.

“It was not intentional,” said Kim Doddridge, TDA’s public information officer. “When TDA initially applied for and received LFPA funding, there was no indication at that time that a second round of funding would be available,” she said. “TDA did not receive a direct notification about additional funding, and staff were not seeking information on a second round and therefore did not apply.”

When asked if anyone within TDA was held responsible, Gould responded that TDA staff work together as a team. “We do not comment on the performance of any individuals,” she said.

The USDA, however, holds that they provided abundant communication with grant recipients: “Six separate notifications and reminder emails were sent directly to all government points of contact indicated on their initial LFPA proposals, as well as anyone who had signed up for email updates from the USDA Commodity Procurement Program (CPP),” said a spokesperson for USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, adding that LFPA Plus was mentioned in monthly meetings with LFPA participants.

“Through the various notifications and meetings, USDA aimed to ensure all LFPA-participating parties and the general public were well informed of the program’s additional funding through LFPA Plus and the deadline extension,” the spokesperson said, later adding: “We are not aware of any emails not reaching the intended recipients.”

Many farmers feel confused by the lapse; was this not accidental but political? A rejection of American Rescue Plan funding? Within such confusion, the mind fills the vacuum.

“The whole idea that it’s human error just doesn’t make sense,” said Keener. “[Almost all of the] other states reapplied. And the USDA sent multiple emails to multiple email addresses to all interested parties? It just doesn’t seem to leave any room for human error.”

Kelsey Keener with the goats at Sequatchie Cove Farm. (Photo credit: Sarah Unger)

Kelsey Keener at Sequatchie Cove Farm. (Photo credit: Sarah Unger)

Mauldin of Wheeler’s Orchard was similarly frustrated and skeptical. “It just really makes you scratch your head when they say, ‘Oh, we just didn’t see these notifications.’ How do you not see that many?” she wondered.

Carpenter at the food bank, meanwhile, believes with “100 percent certainty” that TDA’s mistake was truly that: a mistake. Multiple sources have confirmed: TDA employees are distraught. “They are hurting over this,” Carpenter said.

After they learned the news, food bank officials began scrambling. They met with TDA officials and reached out to elected representatives in Washington. When the meetings bore no fruit, Chattanooga food bank officials shifted their strategy: They pursued a last-minute appropriations request to add to the governor’s 2025 proposed budget.

On March 18, state representative Yusef Hakeem, a Democrat from Chattanooga, introduced a request of $500,000. Behind the scenes, other House representatives were pushing for more. Sources indicate multiple representatives are requesting the full $7.2 million in restored funding.

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“Ethically and morally, there’s no way that stepping up for a sign of good faith appropriations can be argued as anything but the right thing.”

A Republican Senate leader recently questioned TDA officials in a committee meeting, proclaiming that the issue had “come to the attention of all the members of the legislature.” Currently, in both chambers of the legislature, there is work to restore funding—partial or full—which could possibly come from multiple sources: unspent pandemic funds, forcing TDA to re-allocate its 2025 budget, or using TDA’s surplus funding.

“The source of funding is still the most unclear part of the process,” said Carpenter.

This type of bipartisan work feels delicate, yet in Tennessee, where agriculture and political identity run deep, there is growing hope.

“Ethically and morally, there’s no way that stepping up for a sign of good faith appropriations can be argued as anything but the right thing,” Carpenter said. “That, if anything, is our only hope.”

The Way Forward

Both LFPA and LFPA Plus eventually provided roughly $900 million in funding for states, territories, and tribes to purchase food from 5,700 local farmers and producers ultimately distributed to 7,700 food pantries, food banks, schools, and organizations, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service said.

Only a very small percentage of 82 LPFA participating entities did not also participate in LFPA Plus. “Seventy-eight states, territories, and tribes that participated in LFPA submitted applications for and participated in LFPA Plus,” the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service spokesperson said.

To prevent such oversight in the future, TDA officials said they’ve introduced new measures. “We have reviewed our internal processes, increased the number of recipients for USDA notifications, and are in the process of centralizing grant application and management tasks,” Gould said.

Inside the Chattanooga Area Food Bank. (Photo credit: Sarah Unger)

Inside the Chattanooga Area Food Bank. (Photo credit: Sarah Unger)

Currently in Nashville, state legislators continue bipartisan attempts at refunding. The first appropriations request vote is expected in early April. Carpenter is hopeful the $500,000 request will pass, if not something even larger. In a time of such political division, the moment from Nashville would be quite noteworthy and promising.

Even though the $500,000 would simply serve as a stop-gap to temporarily support farmers until some new form of funding is found, the appropriations would also send a strong message.

“It would, at the very minimum, demonstrate the support of our legislature for our work and for our local producers,” Carpenter said.

“I have yet to find a legislator who does not recognize that this oversight is an exceptional circumstance and that the subsequent request for funding seems reasonable, if too low,” she continued. “I am bolstered by the empathy and compassion that everyone is sharing.”

Back on Sequatchie Cove Farm in Marion County, Keener reflects on the difference LFPA made. The grant reminded him of the massive, profound difference of scale.

“For me, if nothing else, it was this amazing testimony to the fact that if there were large buyers like that, it would completely change the entire landscape of the local food movement,” he said. “That level of demand is the biggest weak link in our region.”

In similar ways, Keener and other farmers continue to contemplate in big-picture ways: Why can’t we as small farmers routinely contract with local businesses, school systems, hospitals, and yes, food banks? Why are the barriers to entry so high? Why was the LFPA model an exception and not the standard?

“For serious farmers, it just showed: If people were buying our stuff for the price we need and the volume we’re trying to move, it would completely change our entire lives,” Keener said. “Way for the better.”

A version of this article originally appeared in Food as a Verb. The Tennessee state legislature is expected to vote on funding in the coming days. We will update the story as it develops. All photos credit: Sarah Unger, co-founder of Food as a Verb and principal at Sarah Catherine Photography.

David Cook is the former city columnist with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. A winner of the ASNE Mike Royko Award for Commentary and numerous other national awards, he is the co-founder (along with Sarah Unger) of Food as a Verb, a new media covering local food, farms and restaurants in the Appalachians near Chattanooga, Tennessee. A beginning (and blundering) small farmer and award-winning high school English teacher, Cook's work has appeared in The Sun, Common Good and African-American Policy Forum, among others. Read more >

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  1. Tennessee's missed opportunity reminds me of what almost happened recently in Nebraska where a conservative governor refused to apply for special federal Summer EBT nutrition funds. After much local ad hoc advocacy, he changed his mind, but at least 13 other "red" states have not, leaving thousands of children a little bit hungrier this summer than they should be. Both situations can be avoided when states have well-functioning food policy councils made up of diverse food system stakeholders. In Tennessee's case, a FPC would promote good communication and mutual accountability--more people with eyes on the road prevents accidents from occurring--making missed grant opportunities unlikely. With Nebraska and their more recalcitrant sister states, a FPC can bring more pressure to bear on decision makers from multiple sectors. As the Nobel Laureate economist Dr. Amartya Sen observed, and I paraphrase, there is no evidence of famine in places where democracy flourishes and strong communication is the norm. That's what FPCs can do.
  2. L H
    Was this done on purpose?
  3. James parrott
    Hopefully this had nothing to do with accepting federal funds being a no-no in a dark red state. My church just gave the food bank in Grundy Co and a church run food bank in Franklin Co several thousand dollars each to purchase food wherever they thought appropriate.
  4. My heart goes out to those that were counting on those funds. However, rarely does government involvment end end well, overall. Certainly the recipients are happy. But government can't help every small business - which I was an owner of at one time. It is inflationary and impedes a free market. Government should stay out at all levels. I have watched the gov "help" farmers for many years. It would take too long to explain. But again while the recipients rejoiced it prevented them from making good business decisions and many times resulted in a windfall for them.
  5. TJ Teets
    I am one of the other seven farmers involved in the Chattanooga program. I was the first one that they came to after I reached out to them. The Chattanooga Food Bank visited my farm and asked about my experience with similar programs I had experience with in Knoxville during the pandemic. I was told during that meeting that funding was temporary and should not be considered for making any long term plans. While the program was profitable for my farm, we had a horrible time actually receiving payments from the food bank.
    I think that farmers need as much local support as is available. This article is very misrepresentative of any actual truth, in my opinion.
  6. Karen Young
    Thanks for this story. One burning question I have: Did anyone at USDA try to CALL someone at the state government, instead of just sending emails? Calling is much more likely to result in an actual contact. There are only 50 states, so I can't imagine it would have been too much work.

    Failing that, one state official said they had learned about it from one of the food banks. Let's have the food banks all know that they should be much more proactive to make sure that states know there's money and what the deadline is.

    This is a wonderful program and is a win-win on so many levels. Uniting food banks and farmers creates a bigger constituency to fight hunger across partisan lines. I hope y'all will keep pushing to expand it.

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