USDA plans to end the food box program that has routed 157 million pounds of surplus food to needy people over the past year.
The Farmers to Families Food Box Program will sunset at the end of May when the funding runs out, a USDA spokesperson said April 15.
USDA will continue to make commodity purchases, including through a temporary fresh produce box program and a Dairy Donation Program that is in development.
USDA created the food box program with stimulus funding early in the pandemic. Farmers were battered by the loss of food service markets, many people were newly out of work, and Food Box offered a new supply chain to meet those needs.
The multibillion-dollar program was popular with ag groups and was important to President Donald Trump and his adviser daughter Ivanka.
But the rapidly launched program faced challenges from the beginning.
In 2018, Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue had floated a vaguely similar program, which would have replaced SNAP benefits — which recipients redeem by shopping at stores — with boxes of preselected, shelf-stable foods.
That program was criticized as rigid and demeaning, and though the Farmers to Families boxes emphasized fresh foods, the new program also took heat from Democrats.
USDA itself, now in Democratic hands, said the program failed to serve as many as 900 counties, many of them rural; faced widely variable costs for the boxes; and led to numerous problems in the last stage of delivery.
Reactions to the program’s end varied across the ag industry.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, was surprised the food box program would be axed. “The need is still there,” he said.
But Marin Bozic, a University of Minnesota dairy economist, was arguing that the writing was on the wall even before Joe Biden took office as president.
“History teaches us that when one administration takes ownership of the program in a very personal way, the next administration tends to discount it,” Bozic said in December.
The United Fresh Produce Association, which had gathered recommendations to improve the program, agreed that the move smacked of partisanship.
“This decision is shortsighted, and comments disparaging the program are a slap in the face to the thousands of volunteers, nonprofits, regional food distributors and farmers who worked together in communities across the country to deliver healthy foods to people in their time of greatest need,” the group said.
Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, said he was not surprised by the phase-out, and said his organization would support USDA’s new programs.
“The important focus now is addressing the twin needs of assisting food-insecure families and aiding food supply chains like dairy that are still dealing with the effects of reduced food service demand,” Mulhern said.