Empathy, Nashville leadership and the growing chance of restoring $7.2 million for farmers and food banks.

It's actually possible.

Empathy, Nashville leadership and the growing chance of restoring $7.2 million for farmers and food banks.

"I have not yet spoken to a House member – from our service region and beyond – who does not understand that this is an exceptional circumstance that requires action."

Jeannine Carpenter is hopeful. Cautiously, carefully hopeful.

After hours, days and weeks of talking with Nashville legislators, explaining to them how and why the state lost $7.2 million in funding for Tennessee farmers and food banks, the director of advocacy for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank may be witnessing this most beautiful event: a selfless, bipartisan response.

"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 said. "I am bolstered by the empathy and compassion that everyone is sharing."

Whatever gloomy politics you're watching these days, redirect your attention to Nashville, where a growing community of Republicans and Democrats is working together to possibly restore funding in some solvent way.

The story so far?

You can read our reporting here and here or this recap in 55 words:

A USDA grant sent $8.2 million to TN food banks who purchased meat, eggs and produce from small TN farmers.

The food banks distributed this local, fresh, farmer-grown food to families and individuals.

USDA offered more funding: $7.2 million.

Tennessee missed the first deadline. And the second.

And lost the $7.2 million.

Since Food as a Verb first reported on this story, a growing chorus of bipartisan voices – legislators and citizens – have been calling for Nashville to fix the damage when Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) missed two grant deadlines.

Here are the latest developments from last week:

  • On Monday, March 18, Rep. Yusuf Hakeem – a Democrat from Chattanooga – introduced an appropriations request for $500,000 to be added into Gov. Bill Lee's 2025 proposed budget. The half-million would go to partially restore the lost $7.2 million and would be split among our state's five food banks.

The request will be voted on in a House committee. This vote has not been scheduled, but is expected in early April.

"The state lost $7.2 million for farmers and food banks. This is important because of the needs of constituents who rely on food banks to keep food on their tables," his office stated.

  • Jane Mauldin – owner of Wheeler's Orchard and Vineyards in Dunlap – was one of seven regional farmers contracted by the Chattanooga Area Food Bank through the grant.

(The grant is called the Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement, or LFPA. Eighty-two states, territories and tribes participated in LFPA funding, according to a spokesperson for the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service; only three states – including Tennessee – did not apply for the second grant, called the LFPA Plus.)

As part of the original LFPA grant, Mauldin supplied apples – Pink Lady, Braeburn, EverCrisp, Fuji – to nearby food pantries.

"It was a godsend," she said. "There were weeks when [the food pantry director] told me: 'This is the only fresh produce we have to give out this week'."

Jane Mauldin, Wheeler's Orchard and Vineyard, Main St. Farmers' Market, Chatt., Tenn.

Mauldin spoke with a Tennessee legislator who said he and other colleagues were working to restore the entire $7.2 million.

"They have a soft spot for farmers," she said.

Other sources confirm that a similar concerted and concerned effort across the state. Last week, Sen. Bo Watson admitted publicly that this was an issue that has "come to the attention of all the members of the Legislature."

  • On March 19, the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee held its weekly meeting. Watson – a Republican from Hixson – and committee members spent nearly 30 minutes questioning TDA officials.

"Was there a logical, rational decision for not applying for those federal grants?" Watson began.

"We actually missed this grant," said TDA Commissioner Dr. Charlie Hatcher. "We missed the deadline."

The video can be seen here, starting at 21 minutes.

"I was made aware that we had missed the deadline a year after almost that we missed it. Nobody was more upset than I was about it, to leave money on the table," Hatcher said.

"Looking into the matter, it looks like they had sent – USDA had sent – some generic emails to a few of people in our grant section, but never was there a direct addressed email to me or anybody else to ask us whether we want to go a second round. Regardless, we missed it and I’m going to own that part of it," he continued.

Then, Watson asked what he said was the "fundamental question."

"If you know you missed the deadline … I don't see where in your budget proposal you propose a strategy for filling that $8.2 million gap?" Watson said.

Let's pause here for a few clarifications and corrections.

The original grant is called LFPA. Tennessee applied for, and received, $8.2 million in funding.

The second grant is called the LFPA Plus. It would have provided an additional $7.2 million in funding.

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service said it sent multiple emails and spoke regularly about LFPA Plus in monthly meetings with LFPA participants.

"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)," the spokesperson said.

"The LFPA Plus application process was also discussed during monthly office hours meetings held during the open application period, to which all LFPA-participating government representatives were invited to attend," the spokesperson said.

Tennessee missed two LFPA Plus deadlines: the original – March 31, 2023 – and an updated deadline: May 12, 2023.

LFPA Plus, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service

Hatcher told the Senate committee it was "almost a year" before he was notified, but this is chronologically impossible. The last LFPA Plus deadline was May 12, 2023, roughly 10 months ago.

Additionally, in a statement to Food as a Verb, his colleagues said TDA leadership received word roughly four-and-a-half months after the missed deadline.

"I cannot say precisely when the first Tennessee Department of Agriculture employee became aware of a missed deadline," said Corinne Gould, TDA's Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs. "Senior leadership was notified Sept. 27, 2023 by TDA staff."

In the committee meeting, questions turned to Chris Eaton, TDA's Assistant Commissioner for Administration and Grants.

"That original LFPA grant was obtained somewhere around '20 or '21," Eaton said, adding this preceded his time at "the department."

Watson interjected, wanting clarity.

"We originally accepted the grant for $8.2 million in 2020?" he asked.

"Correct, correct," said Eaton.

"It sounds like it is a five-year grant," Watson said.

"Correct," said Eaton.

"The grant that we missed would be an additional five-year grant," surmised Watson.

"Umm, I believe it is a five-year. I'm not positive of the duration of the one that we missed," said Eaton.

Pausing again.

There is no indication anywhere that these are five-year grants.

According to USDA documents, the LFPA was announced in late 2021.

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service

The applications were due in 2022.

Tennessee received its $8.2 million in 2022 to implement in 2023, with funds expiring in 2024.

TDA, TN.gov

There is nothing indicating a five-year timeline for either grant.

Watson repeatedly asked TDA officials: why was there no attempt to include the missing $7.2 million in your upcoming budget?

By the time TDA officials realized the missing deadline, they had already submitted their budget, they responded. To prevent such a mistake from happening, TDA officials told the committee members about improving relationships and communication with multiple groups: USDA to food banks to farmers.

"I appreciate the process improvement. It doesn't necessarily fix the problem," said Watson.

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Watson and legislators find themselves in the delicate situation of having to add tax dollars to a midnight-hour budget to amend a problem they didn't create.

Within this difficulty, Watson acted with resolve, integrity and leadership; other committee members also deserve recognition.

Sen. Joey Hensley, a Republican from Hohenwald.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat from Nashville.

Sen. Dawn White, a Republican from Murfreesboro.

As the questions ended, Watson suggested the committee "hold this budget" to allow food bank officials to communicate with committee members and, assumedly, to find more time for a solution. It was graceful, savvy, solution-minded politics at its best.

For all the Food as a Verb readers who reached out to legislators and leaders, thank you. It has made a real difference.

Please consider a follow-up call or note thanking them for their attention and work.

"If they have not yet contacted their legislators to let them know that they support this request for funds being added to the governor’s budget – they have time," said Carpenter.

"At this time, I have not yet spoken to a House member – from our service region and beyond – who does not understand that this is an exceptional circumstance that requires action," she said.

  • Additionally, TDA responded this week to more of our questions. In order to allow TDA to fairly and fully articulate its position, here is the full response from Corinne Gould, Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs.

Food as a Verb: Please explain more of the unintentional way TDA missed the application for LFPA Plus. Was this a clerical error? Which dept. within TDA was responsible for the LFPA Plus application? USDA said it sent six separate notifications along with detailing LFPA Plus in monthly meetings. How was this missed? 

  • "When the Tennessee Department of Agriculture initially applied for and received LFPA funding, there was no indication at that time that a second round of funding would be available so staff members were not seeking that information. Once we learned about LFPA+, TDA applied for an application extension that was ultimately denied. We contacted and then met in-person with representatives of the regional food banks to inform them of the situation and to discuss opportunities for support in the future. We have increased the number of staff members receiving all USDA notices and participating in monthly meetings with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service."

What protections have been implemented so something like this doesn't happen again? What has changed at TDA to prevent such a mistake in the future?

  • "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. Additionally, through in-person meetings and events and conferences, we are strengthening our relationships with regional, state, and federal partners so we can recognize and leverage future funding opportunities for food programs. That includes—but is not limited to—partnerships with the Tennessee Departments of Education and Human Services to maximize access to food programs serving Tennesseans."  

 Was anyone held responsible?

  • "The staff members of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture work as a team and collaborate with local, state, regional, and federal partners to provide a variety of services and programs to the citizens of Tennessee. We do not comment on the performance of any individuals."

(Further questions on turnover rate and staffing within TDA were submitted as an Open Records Request.)

What else do you think I/Food as a Verb readers need to know? What question am I not asking that needs to be asked?

  • "It is incorrect to state that the Department is 'defunding' farmers as it is not the Department’s role or statutory requirement to provide direct income for agricultural businesses. Additionally, it is incorrect to state that working families “are now hungry once more.” [Here, Gould is referencing this report.] From the initial LFPA funding, the five food banks have yet to spend $5,508,364.17 of the $8.2 million awarded. If the food banks do not spend that money by Aug. 15, it reverts back to USDA."
  • "The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is always seeking new sources of grant funding. TDA assisted the Tennessee Department of Education to secure a Local Food for Schools grant that aims to help farmers sell to school systems. This program is identical to the LFPA with specific focus on school districts. Through TDA’s Commodities program, 20.3 million pounds of food were distributed to food banks and $51.6 million in food were provided to 128 schools in FY23."
TN-grown produce, Chattanooga Area Food Bank, Chattanooga, Tenn.

All photography by Sarah Unger (sarah@foodasaverb.com)

All design by Alex DeHart

All words by David Cook (david@foodasaverb.com)

Story ideas, questions, feedback? Interested in sponsorship or advertising opportunities? Email us: david@foodasaverb.com and sarah@foodasaverb.com

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

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