Food-Aid Politics Take Stage as Vilsack Cancels Trump Program

  • USDA cites distribution, refrigeration issues with food boxes
  • ‘Terrible move’ for some communities, Republican critic says

Partisan tensions between Democrats and Republicans have spilled over into debate over how to help hungry Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, following a recent Agriculture Department decision to end a Trump-era food box program.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack confirmed the move to discontinue the Farmers to Families Food Box program, a 2020 department initiative to buy and distribute produce, meat, dairy, and seafood to food banks in an effort to help families and give agriculture producers an economic boost.

Photographer: Micah Green/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Volunteers distribute boxes from the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program outside of a church in Sumter, S.C., on March 13, 2021.

The program had “a lot of problems,” such as differences in administrative costs, food waste, and inadequate accounting of box deliveries, Vilsack told a House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee hearing Wednesday. His agency will instead rely on more established nutrition aid initiatives, such as the Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, which provides free food aid to low-income Americans.

The department recently started temporarily offering fresh produce boxes through TEFAP, and is devising a dairy donation program for nonprofits that feed Americans in need, an Agriculture Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement Thursday.

‘Terrible Move’

Republican lawmakers decried the program’s expiration, saying it was a potential disservice to farmers and needy families, particularly in rural communities. It’s “a terrible move,” given its value during the coronavirus pandemic, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Glenn “GT” Thompson said.

“It’s rather neglectful that the secretary would discontinue this program at a time when, again, American families still need support and American farmers still need support,” Thompson (R-Pa.) said in a Thursday interview.

Biden Urged to Improve Food Box Program, Continue Aid for Hungry

President Donald Trump’s food box program stirred controversy since its launch a year ago. Democrats and small agriculture businesses criticized the choice of suppliers. A note from Trump stuffed into the boxes days before he stood for re-election in November also sparked an outcry among Democrats.

Other issues included distribution more concentrated in urban and easy-to-reach areas, and meat and dairy sitting outside for hours without refrigeration, the department spokesperson said Thursday.

“While the Farmers to Families Food Box Program has had some success in delivering food to those in need, for me the challenges seem to outweigh the benefits,”said Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), chair of the House Agriculture nutrition, oversight, and department operations subcommittee. “The alternative solutions posed by Secretary Vilsack will achieve those same goals, while utilizing infrastructure that has been time tested.”

Food Boxes

Trump’s food boxes, an element of the USDA’s $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, was initially funded by two coronavirus relief laws (Public Law 116-127 and Public Law 116-136). Congress allotted an extra $1.5 billion to the food boxes in December as part of the Covid-19 relief and fiscal 2021 omnibus.

Program contractors have delivered more than 157 million boxes as of Thursday, the Agriculture Department said.

Funding was set to end by April 30, and the agency extended it to a small group of vendors through May to use the remaining funds, the Agriculture Department spokesperson said. Then, the program will end, and the agency will ramp up other nutrition and commodity purchase programs, the official added.

The department has bolstered federal nutrition aid since December, including buying commodities for food banks, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, the spokesperson said.

‘Not the Time’

House Agriculture Committee member Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.) criticized the department’s shift.

“Now is not the time to change course and risk taking steps backwards that would disrupt the supply chain, harm rural communities and inhibit the nation’s recovery from the pandemic,” he said in an emailed statement. “Any delay in reorganizing or rolling out a replacement program will slow food assistance to rural communities—directly affecting those who need the assistance most.”

GOP committee members weren’t able to provide input on the decision or receive advance notice, he said.

House Agriculture Committee member Randy Feenstra (R-Iowa) aims to “keep a close eye on this new plan, and if there are ways we can make improvements, I will not hesitate to speak out,” he said in an emailed statement.

House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee Chair Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) countered that “it is a good idea to take what we have learned from that program, good and bad, and apply it to a more efficient food security program like TEFAP to ensure food boxes go to the people who need it the most.”

‘Need Is Still There’

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvallsaid his industry group was surprised by the move, adding in a statement that “the need is still there.” He said the group wants to learn how the agency aims to address both demand at food banks and the food supply that American farmers continue to produce.

Michael Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association, praised the program in a statement, calling it an “innovative approach to tackling what was a massive issue last spring.” But National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern highlighted the program’s challenges.

“We are not surprised by the decision to move beyond the food box program, and in fact, expected it,” he said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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