PHILADELPHIA — After allowing an important feeding program created during the pandemic to lapse before the holidays, the Trump administration plans to restart it this month at the urging of Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and adviser.
While anti-hunger advocates are grateful for the intervention, however, they have complained that the program has been mismanaged. They say it benefits farmers and distributors more than those in need, and that food deliveries often have been delayed and sometimes spoiled. Congress has been investigating these charges.
Starting Jan. 19, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will add $1.5 billion to the Farmers to Families Food Box program, a distribution of food to Americans in need. It began in May with more than $3 billion in funding and ended in mid-December. The additional money for the program was included in the COVID-19 relief package as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed on Dec. 21.
Each week for more than seven months, the Share Food Program gave out 42,000 boxes to about 200,000 people in Philadelphia and surrounding counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, according to executive director George Matysik.
Calculating its distribution in a different way, Philabundance gave out a total of 622,660 Farmers to Families boxes — equal to 12,064,325 pounds of food — during the same time period, according to Kate Scully, director of government affairs for the hunger-relief agency.
The boxes were available at city-designated feeding sites in Philadelphia, as well as at food pantries in the region.
Nationwide, the Trump administration has said it has distributed 3.3 billion meals made from the food boxes, each containing about 35 pounds of meat, dairy, and produce products. The president ordered that a letter be included saying, "I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to our families in need throughout America." It caused an uproar among advocates and others saying that Trump was politicizing hunger.
Crediting Ivanka Trump for lobbying U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for the additional funding to restart the program, Matysik said, "There wasn't much appetite from the White House to keep this program going, but Ivanka, along with Congress, moved it ahead."
In a statement, the president's daughter said, "I am proud to share that, thanks to the Trump administration's efforts, the Farmers to Families Food Box program [can] ... continue to feed families in need, [and] provide employment and support our small farmers. During these unprecedented times, this Administration will continue to fight for American families and will always put them first."
Perdue said in a statement that the boxes will "go a long way in helping American families access nutritious and healthy meals as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic."
As welcome as the food boxes have been, their disbursement has at times been bogged down by problems.
During the summer, members of Congress noted that to deliver the food boxes, the USDA used its Agricultural Marketing Service, not its Food and Nutrition Service. The marketing service helps farmers sell produce, while the nutrition group administers food aid programs.
This may have caused serious delays as distributors unfamiliar with food banks' needs were put in charge of sending out the boxes, anti-hunger advocates said. In many cases, food never got to food banks, or when it did, it had already rotted.
Also, advocates said that the government paid high prices for the food — as much as $60 a box when it should have cost closer to $20, according to reporting by National Public Radio.
"Operating this program for us has been a roller coaster," said Kait Bowdler, director of food sourcing for Philabundance. "It's a tricky place for us to be. On the one hand, it's incredible how much extra food we've been able to give out. But there were a lot of issues with logistics and dependability.
"We want to be careful about biting the hand that feeds us."
She said that food boxes were delivered late or didn't show up at all, or "the quality was not what we were expecting. But there were also times the food was absolutely amazing."
In August, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., announced that the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis would investigate alleged mismanagement in the program.
Meanwhile, during a hearing on food boxes in July, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, was frustrated by what she saw as the USDA's inability to answer questions about the program.
"Are they giving [recipients] rotten food, which is what I'm hearing in some of these instances?" she said. "This is fraught with waste, fraud and abuse."
In a statement, Kate Leone, chief government relations officer for Feeding America, the nation's largest food charity (of which Philabundance is a part), questioned whether the food box initiative was being used more as a job-support program for food distributors and producers than as a means to aid the hungry.
"Ivanka really highlighted the small-business side much more than the people-in-need side," Leone said.
Having studied the hiccups in the program, Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs in Washington, D.C., criticized the Trump administration for allowing the food boxes to end in December.
"Food banks had to stop providing food to people who were depending on it for the holidays," said Weinstein, whose organization is a nonprofit alliance of national groups that promote public policies for low-income Americans.
"People were going hungry."
Problems developed because the administration was emphasizing helping farmers and ranchers by relying on the Agricultural Marketing Service, she said. And while "we're not against aiding them," she said, "it's the Food and Nutrition Service that has the best expertise of distributing food. You need to keep your eye on the ball when feeding hungry Americans."
Weinstein pointed out that when Trump threatened to veto the Consolidated Appropriations Act last month, the already dormant food box program would have continued to go dark.
"That's a scary thing," she said.
Weinstein and other advocates have said that increasing food stamp allowances (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) would be a more efficient way to feed hungry Americans than delivering boxes. The Consolidated Appropriations Act included a temporary 15% increase in SNAP benefits, despite the Trump administration's multiple efforts to decrease them.
As the pandemic rages, the need to help the hungry is a foregone conclusion, Weinstein said.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Census Bureau released a finding showing that in mid-December, 30 million Americans reported they "sometimes or often" didn't have enough food during the week. That's 4 million more than in late November.
Weinstein concluded, "This situation has become incredibly urgent."
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