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Through the program, USDA contractors delivered nearly 160 million boxes of fresh produce, milk, dairy and cooked meats.

USDA ends COVID food box program

Problems with food waste, administrative costs and distribution spurred new direction by USDA

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s temporary Farmers to Families Food Box program will end after its expiration at the end of May when the funding will sunset for the food response program crafted immediately following the pandemic’s onset in the spring of 2020.

Through the program, USDA contractors delivered 157,152,030 boxes of fresh produce, milk, dairy and cooked meats. The agency spent $4 billion on the food box program in 2020.

“The food box program was designed and implemented as a temporary effort to respond to market disruption caused by a global pandemic. While it did help respond to severe market disruption caused by the collapse of foodservice in the early stages of the pandemic, it had a number of significant challenges along the way,” according to a USDA spokesperson.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has been open in remarks since coming into office about the need to evaluate the food box program and look at ways to fix some of the shortfalls. Problems with food waste, high administrative costs and distribution hiccups spurred new direction by USDA personnel to change things up, including an added focus on funding to commodity purchase programs.

Through the food box program, distribution of boxes was not based on need. In addition, the program was not built to adequately capture data on which counties received boxes, which left too many unanswered questions about effectiveness of the program and where boxes went. Last-mile distribution presented a significant challenge to vendors and some did not fulfill those terms of the contract.

“As many as 900 counties weren’t served by the program that we know of,” the USDA spokesperson noted. “Many rural places were not served.”

Other challenges included food safety. Boxes with meat and dairy sometimes went unrefrigerated for long periods of time at distribution sites. In addition, contents of boxes varied from place to place and those picking up boxes did not know what they were getting from week to week.

Small businesses also struggled to compete with large businesses on scale. And other food banks were stretched thin.

Phil Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, said his organization was overwhelmed with the sudden push under the food box program. The organization increased food distributions by 46% over the last year, with 50% of donated food coming from the USDA via trade mitigation or Farmers to Families food boxes.

Future of food aid

Contracting for Round Five was due to end at the end of February. Round Five, announced by the previous administration, had two extension periods attached to it, which the USDA triggered for March and then again for April. The USDA decided to extend for one additional month through May, after which the funding will sunset.

“Over the next six weeks as the program sunsets, USDA will continue to look for opportunities to use existing channels to meet food assistance needs and also to use funding provided by Congress in COVID assistance to respond in new ways,” the spokesman noted.

USDA began to offer a fresh produce box on a temporary basis through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), provided in response to a demand for more fresh produce from food banks and their clients.

The agency is also in the process of designing a Dairy Donation Program to facilitate the timely donation of dairy products to nonprofit organizations that distribute food to persons in need and prevent and minimize food waste.

Since the beginning of the year, a host of nutrition programs are working in concert to reduce food insecurity including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants and Children (WIC), TEFAP, Commodity Supplemental Food Program, school meals and others. These programs are providing a mix of cash benefits or direct food assistance or reimbursements for meals.

“While the program had significant challenges, we are grateful for the partners who helped to get this program off the ground quickly, to the producers and processors who provided the food, and to the local organizations who participated,” the USDA spokesperson noted. “There are things we learned from this program that will improve existing programs and future programs where we partner with producers and non-profits in new ways.”

Industry response

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said he was surprised to hear of Vilsack’s decision to end the food box program. He said the pandemic had a devastating effect on farmers and families when schools, cafeterias and restaurants shut down.

“The need is still there,” Duvall said. “We look forward to continue working with Secretary Vilsack and learn how USDA plans to address the heightened need at food banks while providing a destination for the fresh, healthy food being produced by farm families across the country.”

“They're discontinuing this program because of some of the difficulties they ran into, but they're not walking away from the need,” said the Food Bank Council of Michigan’s Knight. “I'm confident that they're going to be able to do something.”

National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern said he was not surprised by the decision because of the challenges posed through implementation.

Mulhern said the important focus now is addressing the twin needs of assisting food-insecure families and aiding food supply chains like dairy that are still dealing with the effects of reduced foodservice demand.

“We support USDA’s efforts to use multiple programs, including TEFAP, Section 32, the new dairy donation program and other efforts to purchase dairy products, produce, meat and other products for distribution through food banks and other charitable organizations in the most efficient and effective ways,” Mulhern said. “This will help farmers do what they do best: Serve people who benefit from the nutrition they provide.”

Michael Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association, said the organization looks forward to working with the USDA on further bolstering of the U.S. nutrition safety net through SNAP, TEFAP and other important programs to ensure families struggling with hunger and malnutrition continue to receive the nutritional benefits of dairy products.

“Because dairy products are so nutrient-dense, they deliver more nutrients for fewer dollars in federal nutrition programs,” Dykes said.

United Fresh noted that it appreciates that the USDA is including fresh produce boxes in the TEFAP program, but strongly urges that a new produce box program be developed as part of a fundamental realignment of USDA feeding programs.

“USDA recently concluded its public listening session and comment period in which it was heard loud and clear across the country that this program is an important new way to deliver fresh healthy foods to people in need,” United Fresh said in a notice to its members. United Fresh’s 80-member working group on the Produce Box Program submitted some 30 recommendations to the USDA on ways to best implement the program for the future.

"On behalf of the millions of Americans who gained access to healthy fresh produce throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we are deeply disappointed in USDA’s decision to end the food box program," United Fresh said. "This decision is shortsighted, and comments disparaging the program are a slap in the face to the thousands of volunteers, non-profits, regional food distributors and farmers who worked together in communities across the country to deliver healthy foods to people in their time of greatest need."



This article originally appeared on Feedstuffs, a Supermarket News sister website.

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