Lax rules, little accountability in Trump food-box giveaway, say House Democrats

The Farmers to Families Food Box giveaway program, the Trump administration’s response to hunger during the coronavirus pandemic, went into operation without a formula to assure aid was distributed fairly across the country, said the USDA official overseeing the program on Tuesday. While Agriculture Undersecretary Greg Ibach said top priority was to get food moving quickly, House Democrats from Maine to California pointed to gaps in assistance and little accountability in the program.

“This is just fraught with waste, fraud and abuse,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, who chaired a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on the $3 billion program. “We have no idea what you are doing. Nor do you, because you can’t answer the questions… Who’s getting the food? Are you paying for somebody to really give it to people that should have it?”

The program pays more than 200 contractors to buy surplus food at the farm level, package it in boxes and deliver it to food banks and other nonprofit organizations for distribution to needy Americans. There have been complaints that some contracts went to inexperienced companies, most prominently a wedding planner in San Antonio, Texas. Although there was a goal of delivering 40 million boxes by June 30, USDA said 43.6 million boxes were “invoiced” as of Tuesday. “These boxes provided hundreds of millions of meals to needy Americans,” said Ibach.

Half-a-dozen members of the House Agriculture Committee, including chairman Collin Peterson, said it would been more efficient to put the money into SNAP than the multi-step food-box process. Many food banks let clients self-certify their eligibility for aid and some allow income levels far above SNAP, said Peterson.

When he announced the program on April 17, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said it would alleviate three problems: food going to waste on farms due to the shutdown of the food-service sector, people needing food during the pandemic, and food distributors idled by the economic slowdown.

Twice during the subcommittee hearing, Ibach said the program was not based on a formula for distribution. Nor was there a “means” test, such as income, that is attached to most public nutrition programs.

Contractors are responsible for procuring the foods — fresh produce, dairy products and pre-cooked pork and chicken — and establishing a network of nonprofits that would hand out the boxes. There was trepidation whether enough offers to assemble the boxes would be received, he said. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, Virginia Democrat, asked why USDA did not use a formula for food boxes like it uses in The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in food annually. Each state’s TEFAP share is based on the number of unemployed people and the number of people living in poverty.

“Rather than set regional or state thresholds, we wanted to be able to get food out. Our goal was to get food circulating in the system, try to stabilize prices for farmers, to stop waste and have food moving as we fed families,” said Ibach. “It was imperfect in its design but I think our goal and intent was pure and, I hope, noble.”

Ibach said the USDA would encourage contractors to reach out to possible partners among nonprofits. “Some contractors did a great job in trying to blanket an area. Others picked the easy fruit,” he said when Rep. Jimmy Panetta, California Democrat, said “certain vulnerable communities” were left out.

The USDA has trumpeted the number of boxes being delivered but provided few other details about the program. Boxes cost $30 on average, said Ibach. Contents vary week to week and by the region of the country, he said. In the past, USDA has declined to say how many pounds of food have been purchased or how much boxes weigh on average. On Monday, a pork group said it has been unable to get a figure for purchases of pork for the program.

Farm-state Republicans said the food boxes are a success and that Democrats were cherry-picking complaints about it. “Farmers to Families works. It has done what it was supposed to do,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, South Dakota Republican. Referring to food boxes, Georgia Republican Austin Scott said “more has gone right than wrong in food distribution in the past few months.” At least one Georgia food bank, swamped by long lines and demand for help, at one point waived the requirement for people to sign an eligibility form, he said, but “whatever the error rate may be, it’s much offset by the speed in allowing us to get food to people.”

Later this week, “USDA will announce an opportunity for new and current vendors to submit proposals to utilize approximately $500-$700 million that will be remaining when current contracts expire on August 31,” said Ibach. Funding for food boxes expires with the fiscal year on Sept 30, he said.

To watch a video of the House Agriculture subcommittee hearing or to reach Ibach’s written testimony, click here.