USDA food boxes for charity called ‘inefficient’

A $3 billion “farmers to families food box” program, part of the Trump administration’s coronavirus relief package, may not be the most efficient way to channel food to the needy, a panel of experts said on Monday. But it does address two vexing issues during the pandemic – crops with no buyers and food banks overwhelmed by demand.

The USDA expects to award contracts within a few days for the novel program to deliver boxes of fresh produce, dairy products and precooked meat ready for distribution by charities.

Eight percent of Americans taking part in poll said they sought help at a food bank and 4 percent applied for SNAP during the final week of April, said economist Diane Schanzenbach of Northwestern University, on the American Enterprise Institute webinar. A rising portion of adults are worried about running out of food for their households, she said.

The analysts on the panel urged the USDA and states to move faster with so-called P-EBT, which helps low-income families buy food for school-age children who have lost access to free or reduced-price school meals due to the coronavirus, and to extend the program through the summer. With the addition of Delaware and Oregon, 16 states have approval to run a Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, which expires with the end of the school year.

In addition to $3 billion food box program, USDA announced it would buy $470 million of surplus food, from pears, potatoes and prunes to pork and pollock, in May and June for donation to communities. The money comes from customs receipts. The USDA also was given $850 million by Congress for another program to buy food for donation to food banks and help cover their administrative costs.

“America’s farmers and ranchers have experienced a dislocated supply chain caused by the coronavirus,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “USDA is in the unique position to purchase these foods and deliver them to the hungry Americans who need it the most.” The USDA also plans $16 billion in cash payments to crop and livestock producers.

Announced on the same day as the cash for farmers, the food box initiative has gotten little attention compared to the ongoing drive by anti-hunger groups for a temporary 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits.

Former USDA chief economist Joe Glauber, now a senior research fellow at the IFPRI think tank, said that ordinarily, it would be simpler for the government to give money to food banks to buy goods locally.

Economist  Schanzenbach of Northwestern and Scott Winship, executive director of the congressional Joint Economic Committee, agreed that the federal purchase and donation of commodities would be a more efficient way to spend money. “That is how the government should be responding,” said Schanzenbach.

Winship said he was not a fan of the food box. “I don’t think that’s an especially efficient way” to operate, he said.

“The problem is, these are not normal times,” Glauber said during the AEI webinar. Stay-at-home orders shut down the food service sector almost overnight and severed marketing channels for growers. At the same time that food has piled up on the farm, skyrocketing unemployment has created long lines at food banks. “Some of this is the gleaning aspect. Great if you can get it,” Glauber said the the food box. “I think in these particular times, anything serves” if it moves excess food from the farm to people who need it.

Under the food box initiative, contractors will be responsible for purchase of fresh commodities, packing the boxes and delivering them to nonprofit organizations, including food banks. USDA officials expect to spend $300 million a month on purchases, divided equally among fresh produce, dairy products, and pre-cooked chicken and pork. A USDA press aide was not immediately available to say how many proposals were received or to respond to the critique by AEI panelists.

During a webinar last week, USDA officials said they expected to award contracts by May 10, with deliveries to start immediately.

“The food box represents a completely different way of doing business for us,” said Christopher Purdy, associate deputy administrator for procurement at USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. “We’re looking for products we don’t normally purchase.” A wider number of entities than usual were eligible to seek contracts. USDA often buys in bulk but with the lighter-weight and prepackaged food box, it is “looking for a (delivery) truck to (car) trunk” system, said Purdy.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue suggested last month that food distributors, with trucks and warehouses idle due to the loss of food-service sales, might pursue contracts to assemble and deliver the food boxes.

“It is new and different. We have never done this before,” said Perdue. The food box is separate from the “America’s harvest box” that the administration has repeatedly proposed as a replacement for a portion of food stamp benefits, he said.

The Feeding America network of food banks said last month the food box “has the potential to be a significant resource for people facing hunger.”

On a smaller scale, the nonprofit ReFED network said it would award at least $1 million in grants from May 13 to groups “that can rapidly scale food waste reduction and hunger-relief efforts.” The pandemic “has completely disrupted the food supply chain, resulting in a surge of on-farm food loss, food business closures, and a growing number of food insecure individuals,” it said.

The USDA home page for the Farmers to Families Food Box is available here.

To watch the AEI webinar, click here.

The Data Foundation’s Covid Impact Survey is available here.