Despite its fifth renewal in January, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has cancelled the Farmers to Families Food Box program, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told lawmakers last week. When the program runs out of funding later this month, it will have spent around $5.5 billion throughout the year as part of its COVID-19 relief.
While the Farmers to Families Food Box program distributed nearly 158 million food boxes to disadvantaged Americans during its run, the federal government cited inefficiencies as the reason for shutting it down. Since families are still turning to food banks, Vilsack said in a congressional hearing last week that the USDA will take the best of the program, “and incorporate it into our traditional regular programs that are very efficient of food distribution.”
Born out of necessity from the pandemic, the Farmers to Families Food Box program was introduced to help both hungry families and farmers with unsold produce. As supply chain disruptions forced farmers to let their food rot and many Americans struggled to feed their families, the program was implemented to solve both problems at the same time. It made sense on paper, but flaws in the program became evident relatively quickly.
Here’s how it worked: distributors would assemble food boxes filled with produce, meat, dairy and other fresh, healthful foods, and deliver them to food banks. The distributors would deliver food speedily, with minimal labor or storage demands falling on the food banks themselves. But the USDA employed inexperienced distributors, including a financial company, a caterer and a company that operated aiport kiosks, to launch the program.
Almost immediately, food banks began reporting that deliveries were not arriving, that the boxes were falling apart and that the produce was in poor condition. The program distributed food boxes to around 2,100 of the country’s 3,006 counties, leaving around 1,000 areas without service. Food banks were forced to pick up the slack and incurred thousands of dollars in extra delivery costs.
The program faced extensive criticism about how it allocated its $5.5 billion worth of funding. Contracts went to illegitimate distributors, mediocre food boxes were given to families in need and food banks were forced to step in when the inequitable program didn’t. This is not to say that the program was not helpful to any families or farmers, but the Biden administration had reasons to bail.
We're implementing updates to the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program for producers of agricultural commodities marketed in 2020 who faced market disruptions due to COVID-19. Sign-up has reopened for at least 60 days beginning on April 5, 2021!
— Dept. of Agriculture (@USDA) April 14, 2021
The USDA is committed to starting a new food box program run through existing food banks. While its budget has not yet been determined, it will be paid through the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) until September 30, 2021. The boxes will contain three to five pounds of fruits and three to five pounds of vegetables, but no meat, seafood or dairy.
“Food banks are one of USDA’s most important partners in responding to the rise in food insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” reads a USDA press release regarding the Biden administration’s action to reduce food insecurity. “USDA is committed to doing much more to support our non-profit food bank network throughout the pandemic, and ensure that they have the resources to meet the growing demand for food assistance.”
Interested suppliers are encouraged to place bids to become a USDA vendors for the new program.