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Pandemic rages, but USDA’s food box program may end in eight weeks

As it announced contracts for up to $1.47 billion to carry the Farmers to Families Food Box initiative through July and August, the USDA also said the program could end on Sept. 1, or soon afterward, as funding for the food giveaway program runs out. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has highlighted the Food Box as a boon to hungry Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, while the White House opposed a temporary expansion of food stamp benefits.

The new round of contracts, with 205 providers ranging from food and dairy processors to food hubs and a school district in Riverside, California, would bring total spending under the stop-gap program to $2.67 billion. The $3-billion program was Perdue’s brainchild. The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which oversees the giveaway, said it “may elect to extend the period of performance of the contracts” to use up the $330 million that would remain on Sept. 1.

Some 29.3 million of the boxes were delivered as of last Thursday, according to AMS. The USDA has provided few details about the boxes, beyond the number of deliveries, the mix of contents possible in each box — fresh produce, dairy products and precooked pork and chicken — and a list of contracts. A month ago, Perdue said the goal was to deliver 40 million boxes by June 30 under the first round of contracts; 26 million had been delivered by the end of June. The USDA did not respond last week to questions of whether the remaining boxes would be delivered, or if hungry Americans were shortchanged by tardy deliveries.

“Food Box is all about helping people who have need, and certainly those people who have lost their jobs and others can receive the food they need during this period of time in some sectors of the economy,” said Perdue last week, according to Hoosier Ag Today.

Under the food box program, contractors are to purchase surplus foods from farms, package them, and deliver them to food banks and other nonprofits ready for distribution. The USDA says the contents of boxes are decided by the supplier and the nonprofits based on food availability and local tastes. Each box is designed to supply a family of four for one week. There is no specific weight requirement. The USDA declined last month to say how much the average box of food costs or how many pounds of food have been purchased.

Sixteen vendors were added to the food box list of contractors for the second round, and contracts were extended for 189 contractors. The nonprofit news site The Counter said 11 entities with contracts worth $110 million in the first round were not extended. Among those not extended were a San Antonio event planner who had received a $39-million contract in the first round, a financial services provider, and a produce company “apparently based in Guam but slated to serve the Midwest,” said The Counter.

New vendors included a wholesale distributor and a potato processor in Maine, and two operations in Alaska.

The first round of contracts did not cover the U.S. fully.

Food banks have reported a 70% increase in demand due to the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic slowdown. The Covid Impact Survey says food insecurity rates have doubled during the pandemic.

House-Senate negotiations are expected to begin later this month on a potential new coronavirus relief package. Anti-hunger groups and their allies say it should include a temporary 15% increase in SNAP benefits. Farm-state lawmakers hope to include additional aid to agriculture.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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