The state lost $7.2 million for farmers and food banks. Will it fix the problem it created?

The USDA says it sent six separate funding notifications. Tennessee missed them all.

The state lost $7.2 million for farmers and food banks. Will it fix the problem it created?

Part Two of a Food as a Verb exclusive report.

"We are devastated."

Jeannine Carpenter, director of advocacy for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank (CAFB), just returned from Nashville, where she spent a week telling and re-telling the same story to any and all legislators who would listen.

Most had never heard it.

Most couldn't believe it.

In 2022, she began, Tennessee was awarded a big USDA grant. The money allowed five Tennessee food banks to buy vegetables, meat and eggs from small farmers across the state. Then, the food banks would distribute that fresh food to working families in need.

The grant was $8.2 million. All of it federal dollars. Not a penny from our state budget.

Then, the USDA offered a second round of funding. This time, Tennessee would receive $7.2 million.

But we didn't apply for the grant.

The Tennessee Dept. of Agriculture forgot.

At this moment in the story, legislators suddenly got very confused, Carpenter recalls. Often, disbelieving legislators said same thing:

"Are you sure? Don't you mean that funding was just reduced? Can't we apply for an extension? Are you really sure this happened?"

Yes, I'm very sure. They forgot to apply. We missed the deadline. There is no extension.

And we are devastated.

In 2022, the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) announced a new grant: the Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program, or, LFPA. Using American Rescue Plan dollars, the LFPA would direct funds to participating states, tribes and territories in a most promising and effective way.

Food banks and relief organizations would purchase meats, eggs and produce from small farmers. The food would then be distributed to partner organizations – food banks and hunger relief organizations like church pantries – across the state serving thousands, possibly millions, of working families in need.

Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) applied for LFPA funding.

On Oct. 14, 2022, TDA announced it had received $8.2 million in LFPA funds.

"We partnered with five regional food banks to implement the grant, which resulted in more than 115 farms providing fresh food to more than 300 organizations," said Kim Doddridge, TDA's public information officer.

Locally, the Chattanooga Area Food Bank (CAFB) partnered with seven regional farmers to distribute fresh food to 38 hunger-relief partner organizations.

"Eggs, beef, mountains of produce," said Carpenter.

Across the state, farmers and food banks were overjoyed at the steady and reliable funding, which allowed expansion, capacity-building and the ability to serve more people.

"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," said Sequatchie Cove Farm's Kelsey Keener. "For us, this was incredible."

Then, in the fall of 2022, the USDA announced a second round of funding: the LFPA Plus. Tennessee could receive another $7.2 million in 2024 funding to continue the farmer-to-food bank-to-families program.

The initial deadline to apply was March 31, 2023.

USDA extended the deadline to May 12.

Tennessee missed both.

USDA, LFPA Plus announcement

TDA did not apply for LFPA Plus funding.

Both deadlines arrived, then passed.

"It was not intentional," said Doddridge.

At some point, TDA realized its mistake and appealed to the USDA for an extension. It was denied.

And the promise of $7.2 million for Tennessee farmers, food banks and families evaporated.

And all those LFPA programs began to fall apart.

"As a food bank, we are devastated," said Carpenter.

How does a state agency charged with supporting Tennessee farmers forget, overlook or ignore $7.2 million in potential funding?

Doddridge said the USDA did not communicate about possible funding.

"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," Doddridge 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."

The USDA says otherwise.

"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 with USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.

USDA officials said the LFPA Plus application process was also discussed monthly meetings for 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.

How does a state agency charged with supporting Tennessee farmers instead defund and disable them?

In late 2023, food banks across the state began to realize the fallout. Panic, disbelief then action: petitioning TDA, then, US Congress.

Food bank officials begged for help. Can't someone come to our aid?

This program has distributed more than one million pounds of Tennessee farm food across no fewer than 65 counties, they said, with a goal of reaching 95.

For the first time, they said, many senior citizens are receiving boxes of fresh vegetables, eggs and meat. Our relief organizations are increasing capacity, adding walk-in coolers, meeting greater need.

Farms are supplying 1000s of pounds of produce to community neighbors.

Christian-based relief agencies able to buy egg coolers to distribute fresh eggs to clients: an unfathomable idea before the grant.

Another precious example? More than 5000 pounds of honey – the rarest items at a food bank – was delivered in surplus by a veteran-owned TN farm.

Those are but few examples of hundreds.

Apparently, TDA and Congress could not – or would not – help find replacement funding.

How does a state agency charged with supporting Tennessee farmers instead defund and disable them?

It is heartbreaking, maddeningly so.

Laying hens, Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion Co., Tenn.

In Marion County, third-generation farmer Kelsey Keener manages thousands of laying hens at Sequatchie Cove Farms. He sells eggs to local restaurants and markets, but remains vulnerable to the insecurities and unpredictable nature of so many forces.

When he got word of a new grant that would guarantee him a consistent buyer for eggs – eggs, mind you, that he could gladly deliver to food banks – he was over the moon.

"This is unheard of," he thought to himself. "Too good to be true."

Kelsey Keener, Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion County, Tenn.

Keener quickly emailed friends at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank who quickly replied: we'd love to work with you.

"The grant was like a prayer answered," he said.

For years, Keener had been building a powerful agricultural vision:

"A truly profitable egg business with the highest ecological standards."

Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion County, Tenn.

It is difficult for non-farmers to comprehend the magnitude of uncertainty farmers endure routinely. This single grant felt like a godsend – predictable income – allowing Keener and 114 other farmers across the state and 300 partner relief agencies to do what rarely happens.


Deepen their work.

So that others may reap the bounty.

"The grant was like a prayer answered."

Keener could now build a new egg sorting facility and hire an extra pair of hands. Hours and hours spent filling out bureaucratic paperwork for large grocery store contracts that seemed to always come up empty were thankfully replaced with a single wholesome relationship: the Chattanooga Area Food Bank.

He was thrilled.

Yet, in the back of his mind, Keener, though, remained skeptical. Will this last?

Collecting eggs, Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion County, Tenn.

TDA employees first heard of the LFPA grant at a National Association of State Departments of Agriculture conference, Doddridge said. They applied soon after.

"The grant funds played a pivotal role in broadening economic prospects for Tennessee's farmers and producers, particularly those who previously may have faced limitations in opportunities," Doddridge said.

Other states agreed.

In 2023, 49 states, 28 tribes and three territories received LFPA funding, according to USDA's website.

Nearly all of them applied for LFPA Plus funding.

"Seventy-eight states, territories, and tribes that participated in LFPA submitted applications for and participated in LFPA Plus," said USDA Agricultural Marketing Service's spokesperson.

Only three states did not apply for LFPA Plus.

"Tennessee, along with two other states and one territory, participated in LFPA but did not submit applications for LFPA Plus," the USDA spokesperson said.

Questions abound.

  • How did such oversight happen? How does a state-level agency with a projected $204 million budget unintentionally miss a $7.2 million grant?
  • Where are the protections and ombudsmen to prevent this from happening again?
  • Was anyone held responsible?
  • Can Tennessee legislators create a solution to the very problem our state caused?

"I always knew there was going to be another found of LFPA funding," said CAFB's Carpenter. "I certainly did not know that from any inside sources at USDA. At some point, we knew to anticipate it. USDA never presented it as a one-time program."

Sources familiar say TDA is overworked, understaffed and overwhelmed; the missing grant truly was a mistake.

"They have asked me to reach out directly to any farmers struggling," Carpenter said of TDA employees. "They feel horrible."

"We've failed them as a state."

Realizing no help would come from TDA or Washington, food banks and farmers began lobbying state legislators, their last hope.

That's why Carpenter traveled to Nashville, spending 16-hour days in meetings, hallways, restaurants, talking to as many legislators as possible.

Surely not.

Are you sure?

No way. Are you really sure?

"I haven't spoken to anyone in Nashville who doesn't agree this is a devastating oversight," she said.

The best solution?

A good-faith appropriations of $500,000 included in the upcoming 2025 budget, voted on later this month.

Tennesseans are urged to call and email their state legislator – follow this link – and inform them of the crisis and specifically request their action:

Please ask your legislators to ensure that the final budget includes a good-faith appropriation to make up for this lost funding.

"Spread the word among your peers," one Food as a Verb reader wrote to Rep. Todd Gardenhire. "Work within the state legislature to address funding an appropriation which will send a clear message to our farmers that our legislators 'can' and 'will' include an appropriation significantly north of $1 million – more than double the timid, in my mind, $0.5 million 'ask'."

It is a powerful litmus test of our state. Can Nashville set aside the potential for division and instead work together for our state's farmers and families?

Tennessee legislators are long-linked to agriculture. Gov. Bill Lee lives on his family farm. The House Committee on Agriculture is chaired by a farmer and contains no fewer than four other farmers or Farm Bureau members.

"More than any other form of human activity, agriculture has influenced the development of Tennessee and shaped the lives of its people," the Tennessee Encyclopedia declares.

Now is the time to prove it.

"At a time when we are losing farmland and losing farmers and in a state that takes such public pride in being agricultural and having farms, we’ve failed them as a state in this circumstance," Carpenter said.

The state caused a problem.

It has a responsibility to fix it.

Food as a Verb thanks Niedlov's, our sustaining partner, for its generous support.

Niedlov's Bakery & Cafe, a Main St. anchor, has elevated our city's bakery experience to beautiful levels while strengthening community in immeasurable ways.

Back in Marion County, Keener watches over his 4,000-hen flocks. After LFPA Plus funding dissolved, he is now selling eggs at a $2 per dozen loss.

"And scrambling to find new local restaurants and independent grocers to fill in the gaps," he said.

Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion County, Tenn.

For Keener, there's a way out, a solution to be found in the midst of this funding collapse.

"Rather than rely on a government that is off the rails, I think it would be more effective to rally local businesses and individuals with money to start to commit to donating money to a cause such as this," he said.

"Imagine if one percent of 100 local business sales went towards this project? We can solve some these problems within our own communities. In fact, I think it's our responsibility."

For Carpenter and other food banks and farmers, there is the sleepless fear that the appropriations funding will fail.

"This is something that deeply impacts our agricultural communities and working families and might get lost in the partisan fray of Nashville," Carpenter said.

The thought is devastating.

Even if it succeeds, the requested $500,000 can't compare with $7.2 million. Another layer of devastation sets in.

"What’s more devastating? By the time this grant cycle rolls around again a year from now, we might not have all the same small farmers to work with if we can't figure out ways to support them," she said.

In Nashville, Doddridge said TDA would apply for additional LFPA funding if given the chance.

"If additional funding is made available that would benefit Tennesseans, we will take steps to apply," she said.

USDA yet has to announce a third round of LFPA funding.

It may never happen.

"However, local governments, stakeholders, and others interested can be notified of any future updates, or new programs, by signing up," offered USDA Agricultural Marketing Service's spokesperson, who made sure to include the website.

Readers, elected officials, farmers, food bank officials and TDA employees may find it here.

All photography by Sarah Unger.

All design by Alex DeHart.

All words by David Cook. This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

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