USDA offers few yardsticks for measuring its food-box program

For USDA, the most important number in its food-box giveaway program is how many boxes are donated — 18.4 million as of Friday, according to a tally on the homepage of the agency that runs the program. Officials declined to provide other details, such as the average cost of the boxes or how long the $3-billion initiative will be in operation.

There have been complaints that the Farmers to Families Food Box program, created virtually overnight to move surplus food to hungry Americans, failed to cover the country uniformly and gave contracts to novices inexperienced in the purchase and distribution of fresh foods. The USDA is much more versed in buying and donating shelf-stable goods to food banks, soup kitchens and other nonprofit organizations.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the food-box program on April 17 and deliveries began a month later, on May 15. Nearly 200 contractors are responsible for buying surplus food at the farm level, packaging it and arranging with nonprofits to deliver it ready for distribution, a “truck to trunk” system intended to ease the burden on food banks swamped by demands for help due to the pandemic. Perdue said early this month that the goal was to deliver 40 million boxes by June 30. The goal was half met as of Friday.

The USDA did not respond directly to questions about how much fresh produce, dairy and precooked chicken and pork has been purchased, how much the average food box weighs or what it costs.

Instead, it cited the delivery of 18.4 million boxes, “designed to last a family of four about one week.” There was no standard weight requirement, said the USDA. “Specific contents of food boxes are determined by the supplier and the non-profit organization, based on local and national availability, local preferences, etc.”

Although USDA did not estimate a cost per box, the average would be $30 if contractors deliver 40 million boxes under contracts totaling $1.2 billion.

A second round of contracts totaling $1.16 billion will run from July 1-Aug. 30, committing $2.36 billion of the $3 billion, the USDA announced last week. “The efforts of everyone involved form the backbone of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program and its goal to help fill the hunger gap in all of our communities,” said Perdue. The program supports farmers, distributors and hungry people, “a real trifecta,” he said.

“USDA is continuing to explore options to continue serving American farmers and families up to the program’s $3 billion authorization or until the emergency declaration ends,” said USDA in response to a question of when the program would end.

“What has received much less attention has been how the program has or has not benefited local and regional food producers despite the fact that the program was clearly intended to support these farmers,” said the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an advocate for small farms. Of $1.2 billion in first-round funding, only 7 percent “went to entities that appear to be local and regional food systems entities. That includes individual farms, farmer cooperatives, food hubs, and related healthy food access organizations.”

“The goal of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program is to allow farmers to sell food previously destined for restaurants and bulk purchasers to distributors, preventing waste and helping Americans in need in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” responded the USDA when asked how the cost of food boxes compared to longstanding USDA programs, such as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), that buy food in bulk for donation. “The nearly 200 successful food box suppliers include many small businesses and those that support local and regional farmers, which was part of the evaluation criteria for contract award.”

Food banks have reported a 70 percent increase in demand due to the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic slowdown. The Covid Impact Survey says 7 percent of Americans reported they received assistance from a food pantry in late May or early June.

The Feeding America network of 200 food banks says it distributed 4.3 billion meals last year. The meals included 1.3 billion pounds of food distributed through TEFAP and other donation programs. Food banks typically put 25 pounds or so of pantry staples into a box for distribution. Many include produce or perishables such as milk or protein.