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USDA examining future of food boxes

The article was originally written by Steve Davies and published in Agri-Pulse on March 3, 2021. 

The Department of Agriculture is reviewing whether and how to continue the Farmers to Families Food Box program, as the effort begins to wind down after serving a critical — but often criticized — role during the still continuing food crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program, which has received close to $6 billion in funding, has resulted in delivery of more than 140 million boxes of produce, milk, other dairy items and meat since it was launched by previous Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in May. It is ending April 30, but USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is looking at what form it might take after that date.

“We are phasing those down, but we want to take some lessons forward to (The Emergency Food Assistance Program),” Stacy Dean, USDA’s new deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said in a presentation to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture’s winter policy conference last week.

“We have to address this not just [from a] food insecurity perspective, but also a nutrition insecurity perspective,” Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a conversation with reporters last week. “To the extent that a food box program and other programs at USDA could encourage and enhance the capacity of people that have access to nutritious, healthy food, that’s something we obviously need to think about continuing and looking at.”

But Vilsack and others who have been involved with and reviewing the program say improvements can definitely be made.

“The implementation of this program highlighted in some cases, circumstances and situations where perhaps the level of money paid for those who were putting the boxes together was pretty significant,” Vilsack noted. He said it’s important to review how the program could be made more efficient so “the vast majority of the resources are not going for the administration of the program, but are actually going for the purchasing of the items that go in the boxes and getting as much food good, nutritious food to people as possible.”

“Having distributors determine who received the food has led to a lot of confusion and duplication on the ground,” said Carrie Calvert, vice president, government relations, agriculture & nutrition at Feeding America. Her group, which has 200 member food banks, wants to see USDA, not distributors who received the contracts, take the lead role on deciding where food will go.

“USDA, with that broader view of where the food is going, will be able to ensure that areas of the country have equitable access to it,” she said.

Under the program, Calvert said there have been situations where “there could be oversaturation in one specific area, because maybe a distributor doesn’t realize that another distributor is delivering in that community.” But in many other cases, the leeway given to distributors has resulted in not enough boxes for the coverage area.

A report released last month by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition found more than 1,000 counties received no food boxes in May and June, and two states — Maine and Alaska — were left out of the first round completely.

“A more equitably designed program that also is more efficient and effective to distribute the food could be helpful in our broader work to address the on-average 55% increase in demand we’re seeing,” Calvert said. But she added that other changes are needed, such as the 15% increase in SNAP benefits that has been extended through June 30 and expansion of programs to get school lunches to children in need.

The program appears to have broad support among state agriculture agencies. A survey of state agencies in the Northeast found 64% support for the program, with 36% saying it would be “better as part of existing programs, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program should be a priority.”

“Undoubtedly, our agricultural industry and food insecure individuals throughout our region saw tremendous benefit from the Farmers to Families Food Box program,” a group of 13 state ag agency leaders from Maine to North Carolina said in a Jan. 12 letter to Perdue including recommendations to improve the program.

Some in the food bank community, however, believe increasing availability and benefits in the SNAP program is the way to go. “First and foremost, at the food bank, we feel like the SNAP program is a much better way to serve people than the food box program,” said Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles.

“Extending access to SNAP, increasing SNAP benefit amounts, and reducing the restrictions on how SNAP dollars can be spent on food (for example, allowing purchase of prepared and hot foods) is more dignified and will better meet a family’s needs than a prepackaged box only available at limited times and limited locations,” the food bank said in comments to USDA.

In addition, in the five rounds of the program, “Vermont has had five different vendors,” VFB said. “Each time we get a new vendor it means we have to go back to the drawing board, which has proven to be an inefficient way of spending time and resources.”

Dean agreed transparency around the boxes’ destinations is necessary. “There wasn’t a lot of coordination with states,” she told NASDA. “That is something we would need to improve on.”

Industry groups have been supportive of the program. “We are in favor of keeping the program running,” says Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy at United Fresh Produce Association. “Food insecurity continues to be a major challenge, so this program, for all the challenges that people want to highlight, still has served a very important purpose.”

“It’s worked incredibly well,” Guenther said, praising USDA for “standing up a program of this dimension in such a short order of time.”

The National Milk Producers Federation supports “continued food distribution to help the millions of families struggling with the pandemic’s economic effects,” NMPF CEO Jim Mulhern said in a statement provided to Agri-Pulse. “Whether it’s through food boxes or other approaches that directly assist food banks, we would support whichever methods are the most efficient and effective.”

Regardless of how USDA decides to go, “dairy will be a crucial part of providing much-needed nutrition,” but there needs to be “an appropriate mix of dairy products,” Mulhern said. “Last year, there were some unintended consequences for dairy markets created when USDA focused on cheese over other dairy products. A more balanced approach would avoid that situation and better serve families in need.”

A major issue revolves around the types of boxes being distributed. As the program has progressed, it has moved from offering boxes with one type of commodity — frozen meats, produce, or dairy — to combination boxes.

But that has created food safety problems. “We’ve heard from our network that there are a lot of food safety and food storage concerns with having combo boxes, because produce, dairy and frozen meat all need to be stored at different temperatures,” Calvert said. “Operationally, it’s hard to require foods that have different storage and temperature requirements, combined together to be distributed. It’s just not very efficient that way.”

Guenther also said that the program worked best when boxes contained specific commodities. “When they went to combo boxes, that’s when things started getting very difficult, so to speak,” he said. With combo boxes, less produce was needed, which made it difficult for produce distributors that may have had contracts, because to participate, “you had to find a dairy source and a meat source, and there weren’t a lot of cross-purpose companies that were able to do that.”

The Harvard/NSAC report included similar critiques, finding that after criticism of the high cost of food boxes in early rounds, USDA shifted to making price the sole criterion.

“However, this sole focus on price swung too far in the other direction,” the report said. “Most governmental procurement and other USDA programs today take into account other societal values including racial equity, geographical preference, environmental sustainability, and other goals.”

Along with USDA’s increased focus on “maximizing the number of boxes distributed, the program shifted away from its original goals of addressing food waste and supporting the livelihoods of smaller producers, meaning the sole focus on the prices was not the best solution,” the report said.

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