Troubled USDA food box program canceled

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volunteers hold boxes of food
Volunteers wait to load Farmers to Families Food Box packages into cars at a mass distribution site in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, on May 26, 2020. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box program launched last spring at the height of the pandemic with the best of intentions, but things went awry almost as soon as the program began.

“It turned into the wild, wild West,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. “Some of this food wasn’t fit for human consumption.”

The program began as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. It was hailed as a way to help farmers and families that found themselves in sudden need of help. The USDA spent billions buying dairy, meat and produce off the market to be packaged into boxes and distributed en masse to families in need.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Appropriations subcommittee April 14 that there were “a lot of problems with it.” That’s why the program will end in May.

A good start

 More than 157 million boxes were delivered through five rounds. Some boxes are still being delivered now. The first couple of rounds in the spring and summer of 2020 went well, Hamler-Fugitt said. She runs the organization that represents Ohio’s 12 Feeding America food banks.

Hamler-Fugitt said the contractors initially selected to fill boxes in their region were existing partners, who had worked frequently with the food banks.

“It worked well,” she said. “They knew our system. It was an equitable process. There was transparency.”

In May, Farm and Dairy reported from a drive-thru distribution at the Westmoreland County Fairgrounds, in Pennsylvania, where then-USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue visited. One thousand boxes were delivered from refrigerated trucks straight to the trunks of cars.

That was how the program was designed to work, but it didn’t always happen that way. Farm and Dairy also reported in June that food banks in southern Ohio and West Virginia were dealing with logistical issues with the vendors selected in their areas. Facing Hunger Foodbank, which serves 17 counties in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, said at the time some of their regular suppliers applied for the program, but none were selected. It was a similar story for Freestore Foodbank, based in Cincinnati.

Going downhill

Things deteriorated even further after that.

“When they opened it up in the third round, the complaints began. I lost track of how many complaint calls that I took,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “It became a food safety issue, to be honest.”

Inexperienced vendors were selected in later rounds, she said. And instead of the boxes being delivered through established systems — like Ohio’s network of 3,600 local food pantries and soup kitchens — they went to faith-based groups or other organizations that had good intentions, but did not have the infrastructure to handle hundreds of boxes of perishable food items.

“Product was being left abandoned in parking lots, strip malls,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “I had some that were abandoned at a ATV park, completely unattended.”

It seems as if there was little oversight in the final rounds of the program, she said.

“While the Farmers to Families Food Boxes were helpful in meeting the increased need caused by the pandemic, there were many challenges for both food banks and the distributors,” said Feeding Pennsylvania executive director Jane Clements-Smith, in a statement. Feeding Pennsylvania represents nine Feeding America food banks across the state.

Farm groups react

The decision to cancel the program, which cost more than $5 billion, came after the USDA held an all-day listening session and took comments and recommendations on the program.

Vilsack told the House Appropriations subcommittee that they found costs were much higher than they should have been.

“There was an inadequate accounting of where boxes were delivered,” he said. “A lot of food waste and loss that we uncovered through these listening sessions.”

Reaction on the cancelation of the program from farm groups was mixed. American Farm Bureau Federation president Zippy Duvall said in a statement that they were surprised to learn of Vilsack’s decision and that the need for the boxes is still there.

United Fresh Produce Association called the decision “shortsighted” and said, in a statement, the “comments disparaging the program are a slap in the face” to the farmers, food distributors and nonprofits that stepped up during a time of great need. The production trade group also acknowledged the challenges the program faced, but said the program could have been improved instead of being completely axed.

“United Fresh has worked with small farmers, distributors, food banks and community organizations over the past several months to submit more than 30 recommendations to USDA on ways to improve efficiency, accountability and assured delivery of high-quality produce to people in need,” the group said, in a statement.

National Milk Producers Federation president Jim Mulhern said he was not surprised at the USDA’s decision and expected it to happen. Mulhern said he supports the USDA’s other food assistance programs.

What’s next

Moving forward, the USDA will go back to existing food assistance programs like The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which buys surplus foods from farmers and distributes them to food banks.

Vilsack said they have plans to create a produce box and dairy donation program that will work through the TEFAP program, building on lessons from the Farmers to Families Food Box program.

Ohio and Pennsylvania food bank leaders were both pleased to hear that announcement.

Hamler-Fugitt said that while the economy is slowly recovering, there is still a great need out there for the working poor.

“They are still standing in our food lines,” she said. “We owe it to them to get them the most healthy, wholesome food we can get to them, and make sure our federal safety net food plan works for them.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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