State comptroller's audit finds 'Nourish New York' program needs better oversight

An audit of a state-run program that connects a surplus of agricultural products from New York's farmers to local food banks needs better oversight, according to state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli's office.
Nourish New York was developed as a temporary program in May 2020 in response to the disrupted food supply chains during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was developed as a way to prevent farmers from having to dump excess products because the demand for them diminished while the lines at food pantries grew.
Regional food banks contract with the state Department of Health to receive the funds to purchase state-grown products, which local food pantries and nonprofits can either buy or receive for free.
"The need in Rockland County is so great. We provide food to about 5,000 people every month, and it's very helpful if we don't have to pay for everything," said Diane Serratore, executive director of People to People - Rockland County's largest food pantry.
It's the state Department of Agriculture's job to verify all purchases made with the funds meet the program requirements that most of the food comes from New York farms.
The program, which is jointly administered by the state Agricultural and Health departments, was made permanent in November 2021 and has received $147 million in state funding between its implementation in early 2020 and this past March.
The audit found the state Department of Health did not adequately review nearly $40 million in purchases and that the state Department of Agriculture did not do enough to verify the source of where the farm products were bought, according to DiNapoli's office.
The report identified 165 purchases from 20 vendors totaling nearly $1 million that did not have the proper documentation.
Ultimately, these findings could mean there's a risk that funding from the program may not be going to eligible products that benefit the state's farmers. It could also mean there's an unnecessary limit on whether certain products are eligible for purchase and that improvements could be made to the information collected to help make the program more effective.
Serratore said her organization has the staff to handle the nuances of the program, but she worries about whether smaller organizations might fall through the cracks without improved oversight.
"There's so many small faith-based and community feeding programs, food pantries, food cupboards that the documentation and the submitting of reports could be onerous, so it concerns me because folks count on them too," said Serratore.
A state Department of Agriculture spokesperson responded to the audit in a statement writing, "The Nourish New York Program has been an incredible success since its start in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when our farmers lost their markets and many families had to rely on feeding programs to put food on the table. We are proud that the program continues to support our communities, our farmers, and our families, so far, providing nearly 79 million meals and assisting more than 4,300 farms and agricultural businesses. We are committed to making sure that this program, which was a lifeline for so many, continues to serve our farmers and those who need it most.”
A state Department of Health spokesperson also responded to the report in a statement writing, “Created in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nourish NY helps both farmers and families by connecting NYS farm products with New Yorkers in need, and it has been extraordinarily effective. In round 5 of funding alone, a total of 1,791,797 gallons of milk used for dairy products has been purchased along with 33,492,599 lbs. of food, for a total of 27,910,499 meals for households. The Department of Health is committed to working with Ag&Mkts to provide the training, technical assistance, oversight, and monitoring to ensure compliance with legislative intent and successful outcomes for Nourish NY. Prior to the Comptroller’s report, the Department proactively began improvement efforts in these areas as part of the process of transitioning Nourish NY from a Governor’s Executive Order emergency COVID response to a permanent program established in state law.”
The state comptroller's office recommends improved data collection processes, better guidance to food relief organizations and enhancing documentation and review requirements.