Perdue sitting on food box details, say House Democrats
The USDA’s food-box giveaway program has been the Trump administration’s answer to hunger during the pandemic but officials have failed to answer questions about alleged shortcomings and political machinations of the $4 billion program, said Democrats on the House Agriculture subcommittee on nutrition. On the same day the lawmakers asked for food-box details, the USDA announced free meals would be available to all public school children through the end of this school year, rather than the previously announced Dec. 31 cutoff.
School nutrition and the Farmers to Families Food Box are two of the USDA nutrition programs at issue during the pandemic. Congress and the administration agreed on a one-year extension, from Oct. 1, of P-EBT benefits to low-income school-age children. The White House, which wants tighter rules on SNAP eligibility, repeatedly has rejected Democratic proposals for a temporary, coronavirus increase in benefits.
The food box program, created on the fly last spring, pays contractors to buy surplus produce, dairy, chicken and pork at the farm level, package it and deliver it to nonprofits for distribution. The administration calls it a win-win-win by helping farmers, food distributors and hungry Americans. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the Democrats on the nutrition subcommittee said giveaway program has a mixed record at best and “was rife with operational problems.” The USDA has yet to provide information about the program requested as long ago as July 21, said the letter.
“At every opportunity, the USDA has chosen to delay and hold up this subcommittee’s review and oversight of this program, and has opted to politicize feeding hungry families in America,” wrote the Democrats, who asked for a reply within 14 days to six questions. The questions ranged from a request for all communications between the White House and USDA about the food boxes to USDA’s response to complaints that some high-handed contractors insist on delivering food boxes to central warehouses, rather than to distribution sites.
A USDA spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, the Ohio Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said the administration “is clearly out of bounds” with its insistence on including in the boxes a letter signed by Trump taking credit for the food. “We intend to find out what pressure was exerted on USDA to use hungry Americans to make such a political statement in the lead up to Election Day.”
A federal ethics office says Perdue violated a 1937 law against politicking on the job by advocating votes for Trump at a food-box event in North Carolina on the same day in August that Republicans nominated Trump for a second term. Trump was at the produce packing house with Perdue and announced an $1 billion in additional funding for the program. Few details about the food boxes were available beyond how many have been delivered — nearly 103 million since May.
The USDA said on Friday that it extended through the end of the 2020/21 school year so-called flexibilities that allow schools to provide free meals to all students, whether food is served in the cafeteria, the classroom or curbside. The flexibilities originally were to expire on Sept. 30 but in late summer, as the school year started, the USDA extended them to Dec .31 amid an outcry from anti-hunger groups. With Congress providing more money in a government funding bill two week ago, the flexibilities will run for an additional six months, to June 30, 2021.
“Families struggling to make ends meet can be assured that their students will have access to healthy school meals, whether they are learning at home or in school,” said Reggie Ross, president of the School Nutrition Association, which speaks for school food directors. “School meal programs can remain focused on safely meeting nutritional needs of children in their communities without having to worry about burdensome regulations.”
Perdue said the latest extension would ensure “children continue to receive the nutritious breakfasts and lunches they count on during the school year wherever they are, and however they are learning.” Some 22 million of the 30 million students who participate in the school lunch or school breakfast programs qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
The subcommittee letter is available here.
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