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Why the USDA is Set to Purchase Nearly $160 Million Worth of Food

Why the USDA is Set to Purchase Nearly $160 Million Worth of Food

Due to high production and low export rates, the USDA is purchasing a whopping $40 million in pistachios to be distributed to food banks.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced last week it would be purchasing $159.4 million worth of domestically produced foods to be distributed to food banks and other national charitable organizations. Most notably, the USDA is making the largest seafood purchase in the history of the department, as well as $40 million worth of pistachios.

“The impacts of COVID-19 reverberated from our farms to our oceans,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release. “These healthy, nutritious food purchases will benefit food banks and non-profits helping those struggling with food hardship as the Biden Administration works to get the economy back on track for American families.”

Even prior to the pandemic, when farmers had food surpluses, the USDA would often purchase excess stock for America’s food banks. For example, in 2016, the USDA bought $20 million worth of cheese to reduce surpluses from private inventories. But the onset of the pandemic has destabilized food supply chains and caused unpredictable supply and demand spikes. Not to mention, the economic instability has left more Americans hungry.

In response, the USDA has been stepping up to help both producers and Americans in need by purchasing from the former and giving it to the latter. Last May, the Trump administration announced it would be purchasing a record-setting $470 million in food surplus products. This time around, the Biden administration is making a lesser, but significant purchase, including $70.9 million in seafood.

Related: Baby Food Safety Act of 2021: Why Didn’t FDA Regulate Heavy Metals Sooner?

The USDA broke down the $159.4 million purchase by food type. The seafood buy included:

  • $25 million in Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic wild-caught shrimp
  • $20 million in Alaska Pollock
  • $9 million in Pacific whiting fillets
  • $8.9 million in Sockeye salmon
  • $4 million in Pacific rockfish fillets
  • $4 million in Pacific pink shrimp

Though the seafood purchase received high praise, the single largest buy came from the nut department for a crop grown almost entirely in the deserts of California. The purchase announcement included a notable $40 million for pistachios, almost twice as much as any other purchase. So why did pistachios get the top spot?

Modern Farmer reported that pistachio production has been thriving with the past two years setting records for California’s largest pistachio crops. Not only was overall pistachio production up 42 percent over the previous year, but the snacking nut has also become more popular thanks in part to strong export opportunities. So, high production coupled with difficulty exporting abroad means more pistachios for America’s food banks.

This purchase announcement comes over a month after the USDA cancelled the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Though the program distributed around 160 million food boxes to disadvantaged Americans and spent around $5 billion during its run, the federal government cited inefficiencies as the reason for shutting it down. 

The USDA’s newest purchasing announcement will likely help fill the gap left by the program’s cancellation and ensure American food banks are stocked with fresh, nutritious foods as the pandemic wares on. It will also ensure surpluses are put to good use and reduce food waste across the nation.