Biden order upping FEMA cost share allows restaurants to get paid in full to feed the hungry

The executive order President Joe Biden signed on Tuesday effectively bypasses a major pandemic relief bill that had been stuck in Congress, and represents a significant step in addressing two major crises: unprecedented rates of food insecurity and the nation’s ailing restaurant industry.

The order increases the federal cost share of FEMA assistance from 75 percent to 100 percent, including for emergency food deliveries. Anti-hunger advocates and the restaurant industry celebrated the move, which immediately sets in motion the proposals outlined in the FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries Act (FEED), a bipartisan bill introduced last May with support from World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit created by chef José Andrés to feed people in the wake of disasters. The bill, which has been stalled over funding issues and was reintroduced in late January, would have enabled state and local governments to partner with restaurants and nonprofits to prepare and distribute meals to in-need populations, and then receive full federal reimbursement.

“The executive order means that we don’t have to worry about whether or not the bill is going to languish in legislative limbo, or whether it’s included in the latest federal relief package or not,” said Monica Gonzales, the director of federal advocacy at No Kid Hungry. “Now we can really get to the work of feeding kids through this available resource. It’s really exciting.”

Throughout the pandemic, congressional gridlock has left families without access to critical anti-hunger tools, and although the FEED Act has bipartisan backing, advocates say the scope of the crisis demands immediate action.

Tuesday’s order is the latest in a series of early administrative actions to curb the country’s hunger crisis and revitalize its battered economy. Nearly a year into the pandemic, levels of food insecurity remain high. Nearly one in six households with children are not getting enough to eat, according to the most recent census data, based on surveys conducted between Jan. 6 and 18. Black, Latino, Indigenous and immigrant families continue to bear the brunt of this hunger crisis.

Restaurants also are in need of an urgent lift, particularly as winter weather makes it even more difficult to draw customers to outdoor dining. The industry, which disproportionately employs people of color, has struggled mightily. By the end of 2020, the sector had lost 2.5 million jobs since the beginning of the pandemic — a 20-percent dip; 400,000 jobs were lost in December alone.

“This will pay restaurants to produce meals that can then get distributed to the local community,” said Nate Mook, the chief executive officer of World Central Kitchen.

Restaurants have already been partnering with nonprofits to get food to hungry families during the pandemic, as food banks and federal assistance have proved insufficient to meet rising need. World Central Kitchen has been at the forefront of deploying restaurants in the fight against hunger. By last July, it was serving more than 200,000 meals a day, in partnership with 2,400 restaurants and caterers around the country. With Biden’s executive order, FEMA will reimburse for 100 percent of that work. “Every dollar that goes back into these restaurants ends up paying for staff and suppliers,” Mook explained. “It will keep that economic engine running, so that [restaurant workers] don’t end up becoming food-insecure themselves.”

Partial reimbursement had created a “budget issue,” said Mook, further straining cash-strapped state and city governments. “Moving it to 100-percent reimbursement opens the doors for those governments — for city leaders, mayors, county executives — to move forward [with feeding programs] knowing that they won’t face a bigger budget deficit than what they’re already facing.”

More operational details are expected in the coming weeks. In one scenario, nonprofits like World Central Kitchen would serve as intermediaries between the hospitality industry and the public sector, according to Mook, paying restaurants and handling the administrative, back-end details with governments. “It’s an area where nonprofits can serve as a connecting point,” he said. But restaurants also could choose to work directly with their state and local governments.

“What this executive order did is make this available, without having to wait another three months before families and communities can have access to food,” Gonzales said. Now local agencies, cities, counties, and governors must work with nonprofits and restaurants to draft plans to submit to FEMA and “get the ball rolling.”