Agudath Israel of America is commending the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for expanding the number and types of kosher-certified food items in The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which is utilized by food pantries and food banks to provide surplus food to the needy.
Since 2009, Agudath Israel has been deeply involved in making more kosher products available and accessible within the TEFAP program, and has worked with the USDA for decades to further these objectives in the range of federal food programs whose participants include Jewish institutions and individuals.
“This is an important step in our continuing effort to serve the needy of our community, to make sure they have food on the table and receive the nutrition they and their families require,” noted Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Abba Cohen, Vice President for Government Affairs and Washington Director. “We are gratified that the USDA is sensitive to our religious dietary requirements and, in that way, will enable greater participation of needy families in these programs.”
Ten years ago, Agudath Israel raised the challenges of kosher food in the TEFAP program with the White House and the USDA. Consequently, it was felt that a legislative fix was needed and Agudath Israel worked closely with Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) and then-Representative Joe Crowley (D-NY), and a small array of Jewish groups, to successfully include in that year’s Farm Bill a provision that would help bring more kosher and halal products, and better kosher and halal labelling, into the system.
Over the ensuing years, Agudath Israel closely monitored the TEFAP landscape and brought to USDA’s attention problems that had plagued the program, as well as possible solutions that would help address them. But difficulties remained. Food banks and pantries found that there were limited kosher protein products available and both kosher and halal meat options were virtually non-existent — serious deficiencies that resulted in food insecurity for the needy in populations that required these options.
This led a diverse group of House members last year to communicate these TEFAP concerns to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture John Vilsack, calling on the USDA to be attentive to the cultural and religious needs of local communities, provide equity in kosher and halal offerings, and report on the input the agency will receive from Jewish and Muslim communities on successes and failures in accommodating their religious dietary needs.
In the subsequent USDA outreach, Agudath Israel was contacted and played an active role in providing feedback to TEFAP officials. Rabbi Cohen and other experts he enlisted had ongoing and extensive communications with these government officials – pointing out challenges, answering questions, suggesting resolutions, and providing vital information on the details and nuances of kosher dietary laws, the kosher food industry and the demographics of the kosher observant community.
“While there is more to be done, we are pleased that the TEFAP program is moving in a positive direction,” concluded Rabbi Cohen. “We hope to continue to be part of the process and a valuable resource to help USDA meet the health and nutritional needs of Jewish and other communities with religious dietary requirements.”