There are holes in USDA’s Food Box, say congressional Democrats

When Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talks about hunger relief during the pandemic, he puts the spotlight on the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program. He took part in three Food Box events last week and is scheduled to speak at one in Lakeland, Florida, on Monday. Meanwhile, Democrats in the House and Senate question if the donation program is a fair and efficient way to help families.

At a maximum outlay of $3 billion, the Food Box initiative is much smaller than food stamps, expected to serve 38 million people at a cost of $68 billion this fiscal year. The Food Box was one of a handful of programs to grow out of coronavirus relief funds. Others include the so-called P-EBT cards to help low-income families buy food for school-age children and more funding for school meals.

More than 5 million Food Boxes have been distributed so far, with a goal of 40 million boxes by June 30, the USDA announced last Thursday. Contracts worth $1.2 billion were awarded in early May, with deliveries beginning in mid-month. Under the program, “offerors” are to buy surplus fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy and meat at the farm level, package it and deliver boxes to food banks for other nonprofit organizations for distribution in a labor-saving “truck to trunk” system.

“Although some areas have reported positive experiences, we are concerned that the food box program has a number of gaps that will affect its ability to provide food to families in an efficient and equitable way,” said Senate Democrats in a letter to Perdue on Friday. Their letter followed a May 22 letter by the Democratic leaders of three House Agriculture subcommittees who said contracts “were awarded to entities with little to no experience in agriculture or food distribution and with little capacity to meet the obligations of their award.”

The USDA has canceled a $40 million contract with a small California company that sells avocados on the internet. Other contracts went to an event planner in San Antonio and a company operating health and wellness kiosks at airports.

Only $46 million of Food Box awards were directed toward the U.S. Northeast, meaning 4 percent of funding will go to a region with 10 percent of the U.S. population and one-third of Covid-19 cases, reported ProPublica on May 22. “By contrast, the Southwest (including Texas) is getting more than five times as much money even though it has only about 50 percent more people and a quarter as many coronavirus cases.”

In both of the letters, lawmakers asked Perdue for additional information about how offers were evaluated, winners selected and how compliance will be judged. “What is the total value of the food actually being delivered under the contracts? How much…went to distributors for labor costs and other expenses?” asked Senate Democrats. “What areas of the country are not covered by a contract?”

The USDA has said it would spend $300 million a month on the program.

“Our goal was to make sure this was distributed widely across the United States,” said Perdue during a digital Food Box launch for Mississippi. The next round of contracts will try to address “under-served areas, said USDA’s radio news service. In the radio item, Perdue said, “In the next phase, we’re looking at those potential areas where we missed some geographical dispersion, and we’re going to go back and deal with some applicants that were not successful.”

The Democratic-controlled House has voted for a temporary 15 percent increase in food stamps as the most effective way to relieve hunger. The Republican-run Senate thwarted earlier proposals for a SNAP increase. Leaders say the Senate will wait, perhaps until July, to see if additional coronavirus spending is needed.

Congress has barred the Trump administration from implementing three regulations to narrow SNAP eligibility during the pandemic. The regulations would disqualify 3 million people.

“Too little has been done to assist those who need food in a pandemic and too much on trying to curtail access to food aid,” wrote assistant professor Jonathan Coppess of the University of Illinois at the farmDoc Daily blog in an overview of USDA farm and public nutrition programs.

“Farmers are struggling and payments can provide some help but the decision to prioritize payments over food is not likely to be well-received by the many waiting in long lines at food banks, struggling just to feed their families.” Coppess, an administrator of USDA’s Farm Service Agency during the Obama era, is the author of a 2018 book on U.S. farm and food policy.