by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

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.

Apr 21 2020

USDA announces COVID-19 food assistance

The USDA has established a new Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).

This has $19 billion to distribute to farmers, ranchers, and consumers.

Cutting through the rhetoric, the new program has two parts:

  1. Direct Support to Farmers and Ranchers—$16 billion: for direct support and marketing costs.  [Note: producers say this is not enough].
  2. USDA Purchase and Distribution—$3 billion: for buying fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and meat products at the rate of $100 million per month, each.  “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.”  [Note: Fruit and vegetable producers say this is not enough].

In addition, the USDA says it will:

  • Allocate $873.3 million to purchase a variety of agricultural products for distribution to food banks, as determined by industry requests, USDA agricultural market analysis, and food bank needs.
  • Under previous acts, allocate $850 million for food bank administrative costs and USDA food purchases, of which a minimum of $600 million will be designated for food purchases, as determined by food bank need and product availability.

Comment 

  • The bulk of this program goes to Big Ag—on top of the $22 billion or so Big Ag got in compensation for trade losses last year.
  • The much smaller Purchase and Distribution program is to deal with the shocking problem of producers destroying foods while hungry people line up for food distribution from food banks overwhelmed by the demand.
  • USDA is using this to reinstate its “harvest box” proposals as a means to replace SNAP benefits.
  • USDA is not backing off from its other long-term strategy to do all it can to reduce SNAP enrollments and benefits, or from Trump Administration public charge policies that put anyone who is not a citizen at risk of never getting citizenship or of deportation if they apply for public benefits.
  • These measures are expensive band-aids.  They do not address fundamental flaws in agricultural support programs.
  • Maybe this crisis will at last cause Congress to start supporting sustainable, resiliant agriculture?  Hey, I can dream.

Here is everything else the USDA says it is doing

the USDA announcement also says what it is already doing  “to make sure children and families are fed during a time of school closures and job losses, as well as increase flexibilities and extensions in USDA’s farm programs to ensure the U.S. food supply chain remains safe and secure.”  What follows is a direct quote.

Feeding Kids and Families

  • USDA expanded flexibilities and waivers in all 50 states and territories to ensure kids and families who need food can get it during this national emergency.
  • USDA is partnering with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, McLane Global, PepsiCo, and others to deliver more than 1,000,000 meals a week to students in a limited number of rural schools closed due to COVID-19.
  • USDA authorized Pandemic EBT in Michigan and Rhode Island, a supplemental food purchasing benefit to current SNAP participants and as a new EBT benefit to other eligible households to offset the cost of meals that would have otherwise been consumed at school.
  • USDA expanded an innovative SNAP online grocery purchase pilot program in Arizona and CaliforniaFlorida and Idaho, and DC and North Carolina, in addition to Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, New York, Oregon and Washington.

Actions to Ensure a Strong Food Supply Chain

Whole of Government Response in Rural America

  • USDA released The COVID-19 Federal Rural Resource Guide (PDF, 349 KB), a first-of-its-kind resource for rural leaders looking for federal funding and partnership opportunities to help address this pandemic.
  • USDA opened a second application window (April 14, 2020 to July 13, 2020) for $72 million of funding under the Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) grant program.
  • USDA Rural Development lenders may offer 180-day loan payment deferrals without prior agency approval for Business and Industry Loan Guarantees, Rural Energy for America Program Loan Guarantees, Community Facilities Loan Guarantees, and Water and Waste Disposal Loan Guarantees.
  • USDA will use the $100 million provided for the ReConnect Program in the CARES Act to invest in qualified 100 percent grant projects.

For all the information on USDA’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic and resources available, please visit www.usda.gov/coronavirus.

 

 

Mar 31 2020

What does $2 Trillion do for US Food Systems? (Not much, alas)

President Trump’s $2 Trillion relief package is the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020.’’

This 880-page (!) bill addresses food systems in several ways, most of them in “Title I Agricultural Programs” which starts on page 609 like this:.

For an additional amount for the ‘‘Office of the Secretary’’, $9,500,000,000, to remain available until expended, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus by providing support for agricultural producers impacted by coronavirus, including producers of specialty crops, producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools, and livestock producers, including dairy producers: Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 22 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency 23 Deficit Control Act of 1985.

This sounds good (in Ag-speak, specialty crops are fruits and vegetables), but what this means in practice, according to the New York Times, is

  • About $23.5 billion in assistance to farmers ($9.5 in subsidies, $14 in borrowing authority)

But this will go mainly to soy and corn producers, key Trump constituents in an election year.  This amount follows nearly $26 billion in aid already provided to offset losses from the China trade war.  This new funds exceed USDA’s entire discretionary budget request for next year.  The USDA Secretary may allocate the funds as he wishes, with no oversight.

So much for welfare for the rich.

As for the poor, the bill provides

  • About $25 billion for food assistance (domestic food programs $8.8 billion, SNAP $15.8 billion).

This too sounds like a lot but all it does is account for the expected increase in demand from people newly out of work.  It does not in any way increase the amount that individuals and families receive.

How did this happen?  Chalk it up to effective lobbying by agribusiness.

The gains for agribusiness were accomplished, says the Times, by “A small army of groups mounted the fast-moving campaign for aid, including the politically powerful American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Joining them were other smaller players representing producers of goods like turkey, pork and potatoes or sunflowers, sorghum, peanuts and eggs.”

Earlier, Politico reported that nearly 50 organizations representing farmers, equipment manufacturers and agricultural lenders sent a letter stating their needs as a result of declining demand from school and restaurant shutdowns and direct-to-consumer sales.

The bill does little to help the folks who most need help.  Anti-hunger groups tried, but failed.

Poor people need to vote.  And organize.