Audit backs legislators’ Nourish NY complaints
Sen. George Borrello is getting some backup from the state comptroller over administrative shortcomings in the Nourish NY program.
State Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Kingston and Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman, and Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, D-Corona, sponsored the Nourish NY legislation, with Borrello signing on as an early co-sponsor and vocal supporter of the bill.
Through Nourish New York, food banks and other emergency food providers can receive state funding to purchase agricultural products directly from New York farmers, including fresh produce, meat, and dairy, which are then distributed to families and individuals in need. In each of the seven rounds of funding distributed since the Nourish New York program’s inception, funding was allocated to the state’s 10 regional food banks. Those food banks then work with food relief organizations within their jurisdictions to purchase food from farmers with Nourish New York money.
In September 2022, the state Health Department rolled Nourish NY into the existing Hunger Prevention Nutrition Assistance Program, which Cruz, Hinchey and Borrello say has led to groups that once received Nourish NY funding to be shut out. That includes Chautauqua County Rural Ministry and its Friendly Kitchen, and Fredonia farmer Roberto Fred, who lost one of his biggest markets for produce when Chautauqua County Rural Ministry lost its ability to access Nourish NY money.
“The Nourish New York Program is vital and addresses significant needs in both rural and urban communities to combat food insecurity,” DiNapoli said. “The state’s Department of Health and Department of Agriculture and Markets need to provide stronger oversight to help the program reach its full potential. Greater and clearer guidance to food relief organizations will enable them to get the funds needed to buy New York-made farm products and should help increase the number of participating farms.”
DiNapoli’s audit revealed the state Health Department approved $22.7 million in purchases from May 2020 through March 2022 despite not having adequate documentation to support the food products were grown in New York as required under Nourish NY. Auditors noted this often occurred because local food providers only submitted lump sum expenses to the regional food banks, as opposed to a breakdown of products purchased, which was not required of them by the Health Department. The state Agriculture and Markets Department could not always verify the source of the farm products purchased despite this being their responsibility. In a review of 165 food purchases, totaling almost $1 million from distributors, neither the agency nor the food relief organization could provide the required documentation.
The Health Department also provided little guidance to food relief organizations on what administrative costs NY Nourish funding could cover. As a result, the audit found the Health Department approved more than $8.9 million in administrative reimbursement that could not be verified due to insufficient documentation. Auditors concluded the Health Department needs to improve its oversight, otherwise, funds could be improperly used for expenses not associated with Nourish NY.
Auditors also found the Health Department applied Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program standards to Nourish NY. Applying these more rigorous nutritional standards left food relief organizations unable to purchase certain foods commonly produced in New York, such as honey, maple syrup and whole milk. The Health Department’s decision to combine funds for both food assistance programs and not supply adequate guidance of these standards to food relief organizations led to some area farms unable to participate in the program. Further, the audit points out that under the law, Nourish NY does not restrict purchases based on whether products meet certain nutritional standards.
The audit determined vendor participation could be increased in the Nourish NY Program. North County had the fewest participants in the program of any region statewide with 16. Vendor participation was also low in the Southern Tier (28), Mohawk Valley (29), New York City (33), Central New York (36), Western New York (39) and Long Island (39), while the Capital Region had the most participants with 102 followed by Mid-Hudson with 97 and the Finger Lakes with 78 vendors. The Department of Agriculture and Markets has identified measures taken and planned to encourage farmer participation in the program.
DiNapoli wants the Health and Agriculture and Markets departments to work together to establish criteria for Nourish NY purchases that most effectively balances the needs of its various stakeholders and improve communication of that guidance to food relief organizations and vendors; improve oversight of Nourish NY, including reviewing processes to enhance documentation requirements and ensure purchases are from eligible sources; for the Health Department to communicate guidance to food relief organizations on eligibility requirements for purchases made under the Nourish NY program and for the Agriculture and Markets Department to improve vendor participation data collection and reliability, and use this to build the program’s effectiveness and increase participation by farms, producers or processors in the program.
“This audit proves what myself and my colleagues have been saying about the bureaucratic dysfunction in the Department of Health that has ruined Nourish New York,” Borrello said when contacted by The Post-Journal and OBSERVER. “This program benefitted thousands of farmers and countless New Yorkers suffering from food insecurity. It has been destroyed by bureaucracy and I thank the comptroller for his audit. We call on the governor now to fix this.”
Hinchey and Cruz have also introduced new legislation that could be discussed when the next state legislative session begins in January. They propose clarifying state law that Nourish NY money is allocated to the state’s 10 regional food banks as it was when the program began and then for regional food banks to allocate funding to food relief organizations. Borrello told The Post-Journal and OBSERVER in June he supports the new proposal.
“Nourish NY is one of those rare policy initiatives that was a ‘win’ for everyone,” Borrello said in response to a Post-Journal inquiry. “We cannot let a botched administrative action undermine its ability to help food insecure New Yorkers and our farmers. That is why I am co-sponsoring Senate Bill 7533, which would fix this error by clarifying that all Nourish NY funds are to be allocated to regional food banks, as originally intended. I urge my colleagues to vote in support of this critically needed legislation before we adjourn.”