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Hungry Americans receiving federal food boxes will find more than fresh produce and protein in next month’s round of nutrition aid: a controversial note from President Donald Trump days before the general election.
Leaders of food banks, which often qualify as charitable nonprofits barred from political campaign activity, are left in a bind over the letter, in which Trump says he “prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need.” Food banks act as middlemen in the program, distributing food from producers to aid recipients.
“Twenty-seven years of doing this, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Eric Cooper, the San Antonio Food Bank’s president and CEO, who fielded phone calls from food box recipients upset about the letter. “This is like a classic example of what we would try to always prevent from happening.”
Reports of the note, written on White House letterhead, first began circulating during the Farmers to Families Food Box program’s third round, which started Sept. 1. The letter’s inclusion will continue into the fourth round, expected to run through the year’s end, an Agriculture Department spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.
“The program, it just seems to be wrapped up into politics,” Cooper said.
An Agriculture Department official said politics has played zero role in the program, which is purely about helping farmers and distributors get food to Americans in need during this unprecedented time. Trump’s letter has been included in boxes for several months, the official added.
The White House previously noted that the letter “reinforces COVID-19 safety guidelines.” It mentions hand-washing, face coverings, and social distancing, among other best practices.
Trump’s letter is one of several controversies surrounding an initiative meant to help Americans in need and struggling farmers during the coronavirus pandemic.
The food box program, an element of the Agriculture Department’s $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, draws on funds provided by two coronavirus relief laws (Public Law 116-127 and Public Law 116-136).
Secretary Sonny Perdue touted the accomplishments of the food box program in an Oct. 23 announcement, saying, “We recently surpassed 110 million boxes delivered, and millions more are headed to Americans in need.”
However, Democrats say the Agriculture Department has mismanaged the initiative. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Chairman James Clyburn (D-S.C.) launched an investigation into the program in late August, alleging “questionable contracting practices, a lack of accountability, and a failure to deliver food to many communities that need it most.”
Pamela Irvine, president and CEO of Feeding Southwest Virginia, said she’s grateful for the food boxes, as she anticipates a hunger spike in her area “during the holidays, and particularly during the winter months.”
But, Trump’s letter, inserted into packages often pre-sealed, presents a challenge for her group.
“We do not and cannot afford to show any type of party or candidate favor,” Irvine said.
Her solution entails the distribution of an additional note, clarifying that the food bank doesn’t support any specific party or candidate, Irvine said.
For Houston Food Bank President and CEO Brian Greene, the answer is removing the letters from each food box.
“The inclusion of these letters right before an election would put us, I think, in an inappropriate position, so we take them out,” he said.
Michael Flood, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, added that the discontinuation of the letter in the food boxes “would be better,” as federal nutrition programs “have been around for a long time, and generally stay out of the fray of an election.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org