TERRE HAUTE —
Either way one cuts it, congressional budget negotiations mean more than a hill of beans to American food banks.
U.S. Senator-elect Joe Donnelly was guided past towering stacks of canned produce inside the Terre Haute Catholic Charities Food Bank early Saturday morning. The first stop on a weekend tour titled “Travel Indiana on Giving Back,” the local food bank visit was followed by others in Indianapolis, New Albany, and Evansville. This morning the Democratic legislator will visit similar facilities between Lafayette and Fort Wayne.
Donnelly, finishing up his term in the House of Representatives, heads to the U.S. Senate next month after besting Republican challenger Richard Mourdock for the seat currently held by Republican Richard Lugar. As congressman for Indiana’s north-central district around South Bend, he said areas such as his own and Terre Haute are critical to the state and won’t be ignored by his administration.
“I come from an area of the state that’s not our biggest city,” he said, noting many of these towns face similar issues. Food bank directors in his own hometown call the rising need for public assistance “unreal,” and he said it should be the state’s goal to ensure each Hoosier has access to adequate nutrition and education. Groups like Catholic Charities go a long way in serving that need, he added.
And federal budget discussions under way leave a lot of questions unanswered, as Donnelly acknowledged that the fiscal cliff posed by expiring Bush-era tax cuts is just weeks away.
“I don’t have an answer on that because no one does,” he said when asked if the U.S. government will enter the New Year with or without a budget agreement.
Donnelly said he’ll be back at work in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, and added that his fellow legislators should work every day of the week until that matter is resolved. America needs bipartisanship, he said, emphasizing the importance of looking at the nation’s best interests rather than those of Democrats and Republicans.
In the end, spending will have to be reduced and revenues increased, and those agencies which receive tax dollars will have to account for their spending, he said. Groups such as Catholic Charities, which he described as “lean and mean” already, are important to maintain. But businesses are sitting on historic levels of cash with debts at record lows, and they continue to hold off on job creation until a clear picture of coming tax policy is explained, he pointed out.
And that’s keeping Catholic Charities busy, as executive director John Etling said up to 300 residents may be standing in line at any of their weekend giveaway events. The food bank distributed nearly 4,000 pounds of food on one recent Saturday, and it sends 1,400 backpacks home with school children each weekend to ensure they have something to eat when not at school.
As part of the state’s Feeding Indiana’s Hungry (FIsH) program, Terre Haute Catholic Charities operates one of 11 Hoosier food banks which distribute government produce. The local food bank serves more than 90 agencies in seven counties, and also distributes assistance offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which comes by way of agricultural surplus.
Given that about 25 percent of Indiana’s economy is tied to agriculture, this in turn helps the state’s businesses, Etling said.
But questions concerning the nation’s budget have the works in a jam, he said.
“We’re about a quarter of a million pounds behind schedule,” he said in reference to the surplus commodities provided by TEFAP. That surplus produce is purchased by the government then distributed through U.S.D.A. programs and food banks. Delays in passage of the recent farm bill slowed down that process and resulted in food going to waste rather than distribution centers, he said.
Each year, Terre Haute Catholic Charities distributes between 750,000 and 1.2 million pounds of food through the TEFAP program alone, representing a wide variety of products ranging from beef and chicken to vegetables, he said.
“The diversity of that program is really well balanced,” he said, emphasizing his hope that legislators can move past partisan issues to work out a budget deal. “The uncertainty is very troubling to a lot of groups, not just the non-profit groups.”
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.