Central Pennsylvania Food Bank

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue tours Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, January 24, 2018 and participates in a roundtable discussion on nutrition assistance. Public domain photo.

USDA Photo by Preston Keres

Depending which lawmaker you ask, USDA’s food box program is either a win-win for farmers and needy people — or it’s a wasteful mess.

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program, created with stimulus money in response to the coronavirus pandemic, has delivered more than 46 million boxes since mid-May.

“What has been accomplished really is worthy of celebration,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Subcommittee.

But the program has also been slammed for awarding contracts to companies with little food distribution experience, such as a Texas wedding planner, and for inefficiencies and lax recordkeeping.

“This is fraught with waste, fraud and abuse,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who chairs the subcommittee.

At a July 21 hearing, USDA undersecretary Greg Ibach said the program had to be launched quickly this spring.

Farmers were plowing under produce and dumping milk that had abruptly lost their markets when food service businesses closed, and fast-rising thousands of newly unemployed people were in need of food.

The food box program awards contracts for companies to pack food boxes and distribute them to nonprofits like food banks, which often hand out the packages in big drive-thru events.

Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue has visited some of these events, as have presidential adviser Ivanka Trump, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

In USDA’s first two rounds of food purchases, the boxes included either fresh produce, dairy or meat. In the third round, which will begin shipping Sept. 1, boxes will feature a combination of these items.

Contractors are encouraged to buy food from local and regional farmers, and are paid only on boxes they actually deliver, Ibach said.

After accepting the first round of contracts, USDA spent $218 million to bolster food box availability in areas of the country that were left underserved, he said.

USDA plans to use up the program’s $3 billion allocation by Oct. 31.

After visiting distribution sites in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Cleveland, Ibach is pleased with the food that’s going into the boxes.

He recalled one that offered 15 different items. A dairy box held milk, cottage cheese, several types of block cheese and yogurt.

“There is huge variety,” Ibach said.

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., was similarly impressed.

“That’s exactly what anybody with unlimited resources, if they went into the fanciest grocery store in America, would buy and take home to feed their family,” he said.

There have been notable exceptions.

Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, said some produce boxes did not get enough air, causing their contents to rot before they could be handed out.

And instead of holding a mix of items, some meat boxes contained five 5-pound boxes of pepper chicken labeled for commercial use.

“We had to reach out to the manufacturer, which was in California, to get heating instructions to include in all the boxes we distributed,” Cooper said.

While the program has been a success overall, many food banks had to do fundraising to support the program, he said.

USDA aims to save nonprofits some of those hassles by improving its explanation of the rules, Ibach said.

Food banks have the power to tell distributors what they want in the boxes, when they want shipments, and how they will accept them.

Nonprofits don’t even have to provide cold storage for the boxes if they don’t want to, but adding stipulations could strain a contractor’s ability to provide its expected number of boxes, Ibach said.

Unlike the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the food box program does not currently require recipients to demonstrate need. Anyone who shows up can be served.

That decision was made to help assistance roll out in a timely manner, a USDA spokesperson said.

Contractors must submit invoices showing the number and contents of boxes as well as proof of delivery, but the groups that hand out the food have no reporting requirements.

While those rules streamline food distribution, Fudge saw an opportunity for non-needy people to score a free lunch.

“Who’s getting the food? ... Are you paying for somebody to really give it to people that should have it? We have none of those answers,” she said.

Scott doubted that deceitful recipients were a big problem.

“The majority of the people in those lines that were long enough would not have waited had they not needed the food,” he said.

Starting Sept. 1, distributors will need to certify that their nonprofit partners can ensure that only needy people get food boxes, the USDA spokesperson said.

Fudge argued that simply increasing SNAP funding might have been a better course than creating the food box program.

“Even people who are poor or who are hungry still have dignity, and they should be allowed to buy and feed their families what they choose,” Fudge said.

Johnson agreed that SNAP can be used to meet some of the increased demand, but given the troubles with grocery store supply chains at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s not a complete answer.

“We’ve been talking about farmers dumping milk. They weren’t dumping milk because there wasn’t demand. They were dumping milk because traditional distribution systems were broken,” he said.

Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., asked why the program did not have quotas to buy from small, minority and beginning farmers.

Ibach said USDA has held webinars to help farmers learn how to sell to the program, and the emphasis on local food may have helped small farmers.

But in the end, he said, “implementing the program in a speedy fashion was one of our major considerations.”

Some Republicans complained that looking into the food box program distracted from more important work.

“Rather than continuing to nitpick a wildly successful program, we should turn our attention to supporting America’s farmers and ranchers during this difficult time,” said Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas.