Image via Shutterstock Pandemic food assistance
Image via Shutterstock

The Farmers to Families Food Box program aimed to deliver $1.2 billion worth of food by June 30, but only delivered about 63% of that amount, according to Reuters.

The Trump administration delivered far less food assistance than it had promised by the end of June after it hired inexperienced companies to box food during the coronavirus pandemic, Reuters reported on Tuesday.

The Farmers to Families Food Box program was intended to help struggling Americans who lost their jobs or suffered other economic consequences due to the coronavirus pandemic by providing them food from farmers that was typically produced for restaurants.

The program aimed to deliver $1.2 billion worth of food to food banks, churches, and other organizations by June 30, but as of July 1 had only verified 27.5 million food boxes, a USDA official told Reuters. That is equivalent to $755.5 million, according to Reuters’ calculations, and represents only 63% of the promised amount. By July 7, the number of verified boxes reached 32 million. The final numbers of deliveries will be determined once all invoices are submitted to the USDA and calculated, the representative said. 

The $3 billion program aimed to help food banks provide ready-to-deliver food to families while helping farmers avoid having to dump and destroy food as demand from restaurants cratered. But deliveries were slow to start, and food banks, advocates, and some U.S. senators criticized the government’s decision to award contracts to inexperienced vendors, whom they say were unable to obtain and deliver the food in a timely fashion.

“Although contract recipients are required to start delivering food boxes within ten days of receiving the contract and many distributors have already started, numerous news reports have cast doubt on the ability of some contract awardees to achieve that goal,” a group of Democratic senators wrote in a June 5 letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. 

The lawmakers demanded answers to how contracts were awarded, how funds were allocated, and how the agency would respond to vendors that failed to meet their contractual obligations. They cited media reports of a contractor who received a $39 million contract, but began work two weeks late and by May 28 had only delivered 235 boxes out of the 750,000 it was duty-bound to deliver. That vendor, a Texas-based event planning and catering company called CRE8AD8 (pronounced “Create a Date”), ultimately fulfilled only 40% of its obligation by the end of June. 

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These false promises directly hurt food banks, which have been an essential cog in getting food to hungry Americans. “We’re getting about 60% of what we were told we would get,” Brian Greene, CEO of the Houston Food Bank, told Reuters. “Some of it was vendors couldn’t do what they said they would do.”

In some cases, food banks have even directed their own employees to step in and deliver food where vendors have failed. “We’re dedicating significant staff time to coordinate these deliveries – in some case we have to do the deliveries ourselves,” Greg Trotter, senior manager of public relations for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, told Reuters. “It was supposed to ease some burden from food banks. That has not been the case here for us.”

The program’s shortcomings come as food insecurity is on the rise. In New York City alone, more than two million families are estimated to be facing food insecurity, and the pandemic’s economic consequences have led to long lines at food banks across the country. Nationwide, more than 54 million people may find themselves facing hunger in 2020, including as many as 18 million children, according to Feeding America. That would represent a dramatic increase from an already-alarming 37 million people, including 11 million kids, who experienced food insecurity in 2018. 

The issue is also disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic households with children, who are now nearly twice as likely to be struggling with food as similar white families. About 39% of Black households with children are food insecure, according to new research by economists at Northwestern University based on Census Bureau data. For Hispanic households with kids, the rate is nearly 37%.

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Those rates have skyrocketed from 2018, the last time the government officially measured food insecurity. At that time, about 25% of Black households with children and 17% of Hispanic households with children were food insecure.

The current food insecurity rate for white households with children is lower, at 22%, and as the pandemic rages on, the racial food insecurity gap appears to be worsening, according to the Northwestern analysis, which was first shared with Politico.

“This is uncharted territory,” Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, told Politico. “We’ve never seen food insecurity rates double, or nearly triple — and the persistent race gaps are just appalling.”

Food banks and nonprofits continue to do their best, and the Farmers to Families Box program remains active. The USDA said last week it was renewing $1.27 billion in food box contracts from more than 185 food distributors to be delivered by the end of August. The agency is also offering new contracts to 16 new food distributors, which could be worth as much as $202 million.

The USDA did cancel two contracts within the first few weeks of the program, and chose not to renew 16 others, including the contract for CRE8AD8.

But hunger advocates insist that more needs to be done and have called for an increase in food stamp benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is considered to be one of the government’s best tools in fighting hunger. SNAP lifted 3.4 million individuals out of poverty in 2017, including 1.5 million children, according to Census data.

House Democrats have already passed legislation to increase food stamp benefits by 15% and increase the minimum monthly benefit to $30 for the duration of the crisis, but Republicans have refused to consider such a measure, despite growing evidence of an impending hunger crisis. 

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That dam may finally be breaking, however, as Republican New York Rep. John Katko recently added his name to the Democratic proposal, signing onto a June 29 letter to congressional leaders demanding an increase to SNAP.

“Increasing SNAP benefits is a proven effective way to address hunger and pump money back into the economy, particularly during an economic downtown,” the lawmakers wrote. “Overwhelmed food banks and emergency food providers across the country are racing to fill the immediate need, but they cannot match the reach of SNAP … With so many American impacted by this crisis, it is critical that Congress work to provide a sustainable safety net that ensures a basic level of nutritional support for those struggling in our communities.”