by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

Jul 8 2020

More about the ongoing saga of the food boxes

I’m still trying to figure out what’s happening with the USDA’s food box program.  Is it helping farmers?  Recipients?  It’s hard to get the big picture.

H. Clare Brown in The Counter writes that the Farmers to Families box program is failing to meet its targets.  It is “10 million boxes and 25 percent short of its forecasted delivery.”

Other aspects of the distributor selection process were even more perplexing. No distributors from Maine were selected, for instance. Some contractors failed to deliver their boxes directly to distribution points, forcing food banks to incur tens of thousands of dollars in last-mile delivery costs. And then there were questions about the cost of the food: Despite requests from lawmakers, the agency has not publicly released detailed information about the prices it has paid for the food boxes. Reporting from The Counter found that, in some cases, the agency was paying well above retail prices for gallons of milk distributed in the boxes….Advocates have argued that the food boxes…represent a regressive attempt to reinvent the wheel, forcing people to wait in long lines reminiscent of Depression-era food handouts, in full view of their neighbors and in potentially dangerous proximity to other people. It remains to be seen whether the food box program is more efficient for purchasing groceries than SNAP.

In the meantime readers have been sending me photos of what they are seeing.

RC Rybnikar sends this photo with the comment that the lettuce was iceberg, not romaine.

Andrew Coe, who wrote the op-ed I linked to last week, sent a photo of a New York City Board of Education food box that is part of the city’s free meals program.  

 

Well, the apples are fresh.

Larissa Zimberoff sent me a photo of pork patties distributed through a food bank in Marin County.  These do not appear to be part of the COVID-19 program.

Gayle Lautenschlager writes:

In a recent blog post regarding USDA food boxes you asked if there is a way to both more efficiently help people who need food while simultaneously helping farmers. The answer is yes and it is already being done in Washington state.

The program is called Farm to Food Bank. Harvest Against Hunger is the lead agency running this program as well as a sister program called King County Farmers Share.

The basic premise is that giving money directly to food banks allows them to wholesale purchase produce directly from local farmers. The result is that small local farmers are supported and food banks increase their distribution of culturally relevant and in demand produce. Often the local farmers will throw in extra produce or give a “non profit discount” which results in a below wholesale price per pound.

I am happy to know about such programs.

But my big question still remains: What is a sustainable way to address food insecurity in individuals and ensure a reasonable market that adequately compensates small- and medium-size farmers?

Can one policy do that?

Jun 30 2020

USDA’s food boxes: some feedback

Last week, I asked readers to tell me how the USDA’s Farmers to Families food box program looked on the ground.  I got a bunch of responses, but let me start with Andrew Coe’s op-ed in the New York Times, or, as he wrote me, his rant titled: “Free produce, with a side of shaming.”

The subheading: “Instead of beefing up the SNAP program during the pandemic, the government opts for a return to Depression-era food lines.”

The goal of the people on these lines?  “A food pantry that has cardboard containers stacked on the sidewalk in front.”

These are “U.S.D.A. Farmers to Families Food Boxes,” each holding 23 pounds of produce: apples, cantaloupes, potatoes, yams, oranges, iceberg lettuce, onions. When the men and women at last get to the front of the line, they are given one of these boxes to put in their shopping carts and take home. This food is supposed to help tide them over until they get a job, or until the next week, when they can line up again on the same sidewalk.

OK.  So my questions about this emergency—and highly unsustainable method for achieving the program’s concurrent goals, feeding the hungry and buying from farmers who don’t have any way to sell their products–are (1) is it providing decent food to those who need it, and (2) is it helping farmers who need help.

My correspondents provided some answers, although not enough to really know what is going on.

Two people sent me box labels:

One reader referred me to Instagram photos from #farmerstofamiliesfoodbox, and a Vermont public radio discussion of the boxes.

Another Vermont reader said that “The main contract was landed by a well-regarded local food service company – with the initial support of our agency of ag folks – and they’ve worked very closely with a number of other state, private and nonprofit groups to get a fair bit of regional and Vermont products – especially dairy – in the boxes.”  She referred me to an article about the program with this photo of a box with local dairy.

A California reader who works at a food bank said:

We had tons of food that volunteers bagged up individually. One big bag would get eggs, celery, potatoes, apples, nectarines, tangerines, and 1-2 bread products. When cars came to pick up their food, in addition to the bag above, which often had more than what’s noted there, they got a “regular” veggie farm box from Farm Fresh to You, a local CSA. It was all packed up and ready to go, delivered by a truck on a pallet.

I received a lengthy explanation from a food sourcing coordinator at a food bank in Colorado.  Here are some of her comments:

  • We’ve seen our distribution increase by 40% since March.
  • We secured a partnership with a large produce distributor in Missouri for produce boxes, and a regional milk distributor in Colorado. Deliveries from these vendors began on May 20.
  • They’ve addressed issues with box size, transportation and pallet structural issues, and cancelling loads or adding additional deliveries as we requested.
  • We are receiving 3.2 million pounds of CFAP product each month from these vendors, in the amounts and delivery schedule that we requested. This is a 50% increase over our pre-COVID monthly distribution numbers.

She talked about the problems they were having:

There was definitely a lot of confusion, miscommunication, and misinformation given to both food banks and the distributors by USDA. The program was touted to the food banks as being “truck to trunk”, with distributors delivering directly to distribution sites. However, after the vendors were awarded, the vast majority indicated that they…only had the capacity) to deliver to food bank warehouses with commercial dock doors and large amounts of storage.

When food banks attempted to push back and request funding from USDA or distributors in order to cover the substantial costs to them that this model would incur, the USDA told distributors that they could not subcontract with us. One vendor said that these requests amounted to “extortion” by food banks. [Our] Food Bank…ended up having to secure an additional warehouse, hire 5 staff, and rent 8 new vehicles in order to handle the amount of product we are receiving. The cost to us is about $100,000/month in order to take on the additional product. None of that cost is reimbursed by USDA, which is reimbursing the entire costs of procurement, packaging, and transportation for the distributors. Here’s a link to an article about those additional costs…. we’re fairly unique among food banks in being able and willing to incur those additional costs.

She sent a photo of what’s in the boxes, judging the quality as very high.

Does the program benefit small producers?

  • The milk distributor is a local company.
  • The onions and potatoes are also sourced from Colorado growers…[but] the Colorado growing season doesn’t kick into full gear until late June.
  • Our meat is coming out of Wisconsin…subcontracted with another distributor…so I don’t know where that meat comes from.
  • Many of our small farms who originally submitted bids for the program and were not awarded have not been included in produce sourcing by the distributors that were awarded.

Her conclusion: “While CFAP has definitely been a big lift for us to get up and running, and has had many stumbling blocks since its inception, the enormous amount of high-quality, very in-demand product that we’ve been able to distribute to our clients across Colorado and Wyoming has, in my mind, made the program a success for us.”

OK, so the program is working, as far as it goes, but at great cost.  I’m with Andy Coe on this one.  This is helping distributors more than farmers, and is demeaning to recipients.  There are much better ways to solve both problems.  If only we had the political will to take it on.

Addition

Jerry Hagstrom, of The Hagstrom Report, to which I faithfully subscribe, writes:

I don’t see any of your readers making the following points:

  1. The object of the box program was to find a way to make use of the foods–particularly fruits and vegetables but also pork, chicken and dairy– that were intended for restaurant and institutional use, much of which would spoil if a quick way was not found to use it. Increasing SNAP benefits would not address the problem of figuring out how to distribute food that was intended for restaurants and institutions. As I understand it many of the farmers and distributors engaged in that business do not have any relationship with grocery store distributional channels.
  2. The SNAP program requires applications and documentation before someone is approved for the program. That takes time. The box program has moved food fairly quickly.
  3. As far as I know, food banks do not ask people if they are low income. So people who are suddenly low income can go there and get food, which they cannot do so quickly through the SNAP program.
  4. It would seem to me the food box program was a short term solution, although I don’t know what the farmers and distributors that have been selling to the restaurants and institutions are supposed to do if that demand does not return quickly. Should they go out of business or should some system be found to keep them in business until demand picks up? Would that mean continuing the food box program?

These are worth considering.  But the real question, it seems to me, is how to develop a food assistance system that helps people who need food in a more efficient way, while helping farmers find outlets for what they produce that guarantee them a decent living.  We all need to be working on that.

Jun 25 2020

The continuing saga of the food boxes

The USDA says 20 million food boxes have been delivered to food banks through the Farmers-to-Families program, which aimed to buy food from farms that had no way of selling what they produced, package it in boxes, and deliver them to food banks.  The announcement comes with a very long list of testimonials, and a video that you can watch here.

The USDA’s website about this is here.  The program is described here.

Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic.  The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says that the food box program is not exactly doing much for small farms.

Most of the news coverage on the CFAP Food Box Program, and the Congressional attention that follows, has focused on large contracts awarded to companies without much experience in the distribution of specialty crops. This also caused the larger specialty crop industry to raise concerns about the early shortcomings of the program.

What has received much less attention has been how the program has or has not benefited local and regional food producers despite the fact that the program was clearly intended to support these farmers. Grant applicants were required to discuss how their proposed project supports the mission of facilitating agricultural markets and how they “intend to engage small farmers (e.g those farms servicing local and region interests and farmers markets).”

And Chuck Abbott, of FERN’s Ag Insider, says USDA offers few yardsticks for measuring its food-box program.

For USDA, the most important number in its food-box giveaway program is how many boxes are donated — 18.4 million as of Friday, according to a tally on the homepage of the agency that runs the program. Officials declined to provide other details, such as the average cost of the boxes or how long the $3-billion initiative will be in operation.

I would like to know:

  • What’s in the boxes?
  • What food?  How much food?
  • What is its quality?
  • How are food banks handling this?
  • Are recipients happy with it?
  • Is the program helping small farmers stay in business?

Does anyone know?  I haven’t seen answers to these questions yet.

 

Jun 11 2020

Weekly report: USDA’s current version of Harvest Boxes (“Farmers to Families”)

The USDA says

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced today that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farmers to Families Food Box Program has distributed more than five million food boxes in support of American farmers and families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In case you have any doubts, the USDA has a video of the program in action: USDA Farmers Feed Families Food Box Program video

Or, you can listen to the USDA’s podcast interviews.  Have a Listen.

Not everyone thinks the program is going swimmingly.

  • Food Bank News reports that the program is indeed underway, but it is turning out to be expensive for food banks; they were not prepared for the “substantial additional costs” of storage space or distribution.
  • Chuck Abbott reports “holes in USDA’s Food Box.”  Congressional Democrats are raising questions about whether this program “is a fair and efficient way to help families.”

Although some areas have reported positive experiences, we are concerned that the Food Box program has a number of gaps that will affect its ability to provide food to families in an efficient and equitable way,” said Senate Democrats in a letter to Perdue on Friday. Their letter followed a May 22 letter by the Democratic leaders of three House Agriculture subcommittees who said contracts “were awarded to entities with little to no experience in agriculture or food distribution and with little capacity to meet the obligations of their award.

The program got off to a bad start, but may yet end up doing some good.

But really, these resources ought to be going into SNAP, which already works and could work much better if given adequate resources.

Jun 2 2020

Harvest boxes: the ongoing saga

Let’s start the latest round of items related to food boxes for the hungry (which I’ve been following closely) with the New York Times Sunday Magazine cover for May 31: cars lined up in San Antonio for handouts from food banks.

To deal with this problem—and that of farmers destroying animals and crops—the USDA  has issued contracts to companies to collect the food and pack it into boxes to be delivered to food banks.

The contracts were issued in a great hurry, with just the kind of results you might expect.

Some members of Congress were so concerned about the haste and lack of oversight that they wrote a letter to Secretary Perdue raising questions about the entire process.

This new program was announced on April 17, 2020, and solicitations were accepted for one week.  USDA then announced $1.2 billion in contracts just one week later, on May 8, 2020, with awardees expected to begin box deliveries as soon as May 15, 2020…We are concerned, however, that contracts were awarded to entities with little to no experience in agriculture or food distribution and with little capacity to meet the obligations of their award.

Little funding is going for boxes in New England, for example, and none to Maine or Alaska.

Put another way, the Northeast has 10% of the country’s population and 33% of COVID-19 cases but is receiving only 4% of food relief dollars, according to ProPublica’s analysis of data from the USDA, the Census Bureau and Johns Hopkins University.

USDA has already cancelled one $40 million contract with an avocado producer.

Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich and Ryan McCrimmon have been closely following this story, particularly events related to a company in San Antonio.

CRE8AD8 (pronounced “create a date”), a San Antonio event marketing firm, received $39 million to deliver food boxes in the Southwest, sparking questions about its qualifications from produce industry veterans, local lawmakers and top ag policymakers in Washington. The San Antonio Express-News also reported that the company made dubious claims about its clients, credentials and affiliations.

They report that Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) wrote to Secretary Perdue calling for revocation of the contract.

Despite these objections, the USDA rushed through a license to CRE8AD8 to allow it to operate as a produce business. CRE8AD8 posted on its Facebook page: “We’ve received our PACA license! Let’s feed America!”

The reporters note:

It’s been more than a month since an aerial photo of thousands of cars waiting in line for food in a San Antonio parking lot went viral — a gut-wrenching sign of the huge need amid economic fallout from Covid-19. But USDA’s new Farmers to Families Food Box program has yet to come through for that hard-hit community.,,The San Antonio Food Bank has not received a single box from CRE8AD8 (pronounced “create a date”), the embattled event planner that received a massive $39 million USDA contract in its own backyard. The food bank says it’s currently getting about 10 percent of what it expected from the program, all from smaller contractors.

Overall,

The fledgling food box program is working well for many nonprofits and food banks serving food to people in need. Of the roughly dozen major food banks POLITICO contacted, nearly all reported that they had begun receiving boxes, though many deliveries starting behind schedule.

All of this is likely to go on for a long time.  The Packer says that USDA will do a second round of funding for box distributors.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning another round of contracts for the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, according to an administrator of the program who touted its successes during a Produce Marketing Association Virtual Town Hall.

Additions

From Politico, June 1:

The Texas-based event planner that received a $39 million contract from USDA to supply boxes of meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables has delivered its first 235 boxes to the San Antonio Food Bank. CRE8AD8 agreed to provide 750,000 boxes to feeding organizations across the Southwest by June 30. The company’s CEO said more food will be delivered this week to food banks in Arizona, Texas and Utah. More from the San Antonio Express-News.

From Politico, June 2: The Wisconsin dairy industry is concerned that its industry has been left out of the USDA payments for boxes; Members of Congress wrote the USDA Secretary to complain that Wisconsin-based businesses received less than 1 percent of the funding.

May 21 2020

The meat problem 3: Culling animals, Harvest Boxes again

I’m trying to keep up with meat crisis items.  Here are two.

CULLING

This is too upsetting to even talk about.

HARVEST BOXES AGAIN

The USDA’s current version of Harvest Boxes for food assistance is called the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, as I wrote about in a previous post.

The idea is that all those food animals and other foods that are being destroyed because of food chain problems will be collected, packed in boxes, and distributed to food banks  to be further distributed to people in need.

The USDA has now issued the contracts to companies who have bid to do this work.

Oops.  Some getting millions of dollars in contracts have no experience with this sort of thing.  As Politico reveals,

Most of the most well-known companies in the business, from large national names like FreshPoint, a division of Sysco, to more regional companies like Keany Produce, based in Maryland, were left off.  Muzyk of Baldor Specialty Foods said it’s clear that some companies applied without understanding what’s really required to purchase, pack and distribute fresh food at the scale the program requires. It requires proper cold storage capacity and trucks as well as food safety practices, particularly for produce which is vulnerable to contamination.

The contracts have raised eyebrows throughout the produce industry.

The Packer, which writes about produce-industry matters, wants to know how those contracts were awarded.

But questions immediately began circulating: How does a high-dollar events promoter pull down the largest contract ($39 million) in Texas? Why are companies without Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act licenses, warehouses, coolers or trucks receiving multi-million contracts, some well beyond the annual revenue of the company?…United Fresh Produce Association president and CEO Tom Stenzel wrote to Bruce Summers, administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which is overseeing the contracts, with a list of 15 questions.

The Packer, also wonders what will go in those boxes

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives companies participating in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program leeway on what’s going in the produce boxes. The Packer wants to see what Farmers to Families’ contract recipients are packing into their boxes.

This looks like a disaster waiting to happen.  Companies with no track-record for these kinds of logistics are supposed to collect food, pack it, and get it to food banks.

Food banks, largely run by volunteers, are supposed to get the boxes to those who need food.

I can’t imagine how this can work.  In the meantime, the culling continues.

Additions

May 13 2020

Now is the time to strengthen SNAP

Yesterday, I mentioned the commentary in the New York Times—Americans Are Lining Up for Food. What Is Team Trump Doing?—calling on the USDA to expand SNAP rather that transfer responsibility for food assistance to private food banks.  No matter how good they are—and many do fabulous work—volunteer charitable agencies cannot keep up with assistance demands.

SNAP can.

SNAP, as I explained recently, is the last vestige of what used to be a much stronger safety net for the poor.  It is demonstrably effective in raising families out of poverty and reducing levels of food insecurity.

SNAP’s great strength is that it is an entitlement.  We have more than 30 million people newly unemployed in the United States.  Many of them will qualify for SNAP and are entitled to program benefits.

SNAP ought to command widespread bipartisan support, but the program is instead a flashpoint for political battles.

The reality of so many Americans running out of food is an alarming reminder of the economic hardship the pandemic has inflicted. But…Republicans have balked at a long-term expansion of food stamps — a core feature of the safety net that once enjoyed broad support but is now a source of a highly partisan divide. Democrats want to raise food stamp benefits by 15 percent for the duration of the economic crisis, arguing that a similar move during the Great Recession reduced hunger and helped the economy. But Republicans have fought for years to shrink the program, saying that the earlier liberalization led to enduring caseload growth and a backdoor expansion of the welfare state…The Republican distrust of food stamps has now collided with a monumental crisis. Cars outside food banks have lined up for miles in places as different as San Antonio, Pittsburgh and Miami Beach.

Anti-hunger groups make a strong case for a 15 percent increase.  Feeding America is running ads to promote SNAP, for example, this one targeting North Dakota

In the meantime, we have relief funds..

If history teaches us anything, it is that private charity can never replace government policy.  Now, more than ever, we need government for the people.

May 12 2020

USDA gets its “harvest boxes” at long last

Remember “Harvest Boxes”?  This was USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s method for replacing SNAP benefits with boxes of food commodities (see my much earlier post on this).

The idea was widely ridiculed at the time (impractical, logistically expensive, condescending), but the Covid-19 pandemic has resuscitated the plan.

It won’t be called Harvest Boxes.  Instead, welcome to the $3 billion “Farmers to Families Food Box Program.”

Agricultural Marketing Service’s Commodity Procurement Program will procure an estimated $100 million per month in fresh fruits and vegetables, $100 million per month in a variety of dairy products, and $100 million per month in meat products. The distributors and wholesalers will then provide a pre-approved box of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need.

It comes with an Infographic.

How will this work?  USDA has an FAQ page.

Q. Please explain the goal of the government regarding execution of these contracts?

A.  The prime contractor receiving an award is responsible for all aspects of contract performance. The aspects of performance include but are not limited to sourcing product for inclusion in boxes, conducting all aspects of preparing the boxes, sourcing and communicating with non-profits and transportation and final delivery of boxes to the non-profit on a mutually agreeable, recurring schedule.

What does this mean?

Contractors will acquire dairy, meat, and/or produce, pack it in boxes, and deliver those boxes to food banks, which will then distribute the boxes to people seeking food.  This puts food banks—charitable organizations largely run by volunteers—on the front line of food assistance.

Should we be doing this?

I’m not the only one thinking this system is logistically absurd and just plain wrong.

Matt Russell, Robert Leonard and Beto O’Rourke, writing in the New York Times, say “Americans Are Lining Up for Food. What Is Team Trump Doing?”

Funding food banks while not expanding food stamps…is a solution driven by ideology rather than practicality. We have great respect for these organizations, but food banks aren’t up to feeding tens of millions of hungry Americans indefinitely.  We already have an amazingly efficient and effective program to do this. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, empowers Americans in literally hours and days to go to their local grocery store and get the food they need.

What’s supposed to be in the boxes?

The USDA explained in its solicitation document what it is expecting to get.

Who is getting the contracts?  Look them up here.  United Fresh, which represents fruit and vegetable growers, has questions about the selection process.   And farmers are asking: how is it possible for companies with no warehouses or storage capacity to prepare boxes?

But that’s not all. 

The USDA also announced an additional $470 million in food purchases for donation to food banks for delivery in July.

As for benefit for farmers, FERN’s AgInsider reports:

“USDA is working as quickly as possible to implement CFAP,” said the spokesperson. “Signup for the direct assistance is expected to begin by the end of May. USDA proposes to use a $125,000 payment limit per commodity, with an overall payment limit of $250,000 per individual/entity and a $900,000 adjusted gross income limit for individuals who do not derive 75 percent or more of their income from farming.”

I’m interested to see how this works, in practice.  We should know in a couple of weeks.