Depending on which law maker you ask, the USDA lunch box program is a win-win for farmers and people in need – or it is a futile mess.
The Farmer Food Box Program for Families, created with stimulus money in response to the coronavirus pandemic, has sent more than 46 million boxes since mid-May.
“What has been achieved is really worth celebrating,” Rep said. Dusty Johnson, top Republican at the House Nutrition, Supervision, and Department Operations Subcommittee.
But the program was also slammed for giving contracts to companies with little food distribution experience, such as Texas wedding planners, and because of inefficiency and poor record keeping.
“It’s full of waste, fraud and abuse,” Rep said. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who heads the subcommittee.
At a July 21 hearing, USDA deputy minister Greg Ibach said the program must be launched quickly this spring.
Farmers plow under products and discard milk that suddenly loses their market when the food service business closes, and thousands of unemployed people who are on the rise need food.
The lunch box program gives companies contracts to package food boxes and distribute them to non-profit organizations such as food banks, who often distribute packages at large drive-thru events.
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue has visited several of these events, such as advisor to president Ivanka Trump, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
In the first two rounds of USDA food purchases, the boxes included fresh products, milk or meat. In the third round, which will begin shipping September 1, the box will display a combination of these items.
Contractors are encouraged to buy food from local and regional farmers, and are paid only for the boxes they actually deliver, Ibach said.
After receiving the first round of contracts, the USDA spent $ 218 million to increase the availability of lunch boxes in areas in the country that were left behind, he said.
The USDA plans to use the $ 3 billion program allocation until October 31.
After visiting distribution locations in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Cleveland, Ibach was pleased with the food that came into the box.
He remembers one that offers 15 different items. Milk boxes containing milk, cottage cheese, several types of block cheese and yogurt.
“There are many variations,” Ibach said.
Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., Also impressed.
“That is exactly what people with unlimited resources, if they go to the best grocery store in America, will buy and bring home to feed their families,” he said.
There are a few exceptions.
Eric Cooper, president and CEO of San Antonio Food Bank, said some product boxes did not get enough air, causing the contents to rot before they could be distributed.
And instead of holding a mixture of items, several boxes of meat contain five boxes of 5 pounds of labeled chicken pepper for commercial use.
“We have to reach out to producers, who are in California, to get heating instructions to put in all the boxes that we distribute,” Cooper said.
While the program has been a success as a whole, many food banks must raise funds to support the program, he said.
The USDA aims to save several nonprofit organizations by increasing the explanation of rules, Ibach said.
Food banks have the power to tell distributors what they want in the box, when they want delivery, and how they will receive it.
Nonprofits don’t even have to provide cold storage for boxes if they don’t want to, but adding provisions may interfere with the contractor’s ability to provide the expected number of boxes, Ibach said.
In contrast to the Additional Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the lunch box program does not currently require recipients to indicate needs. Anyone who appears can be served.
The decision was made to help deliver aid on time, a USDA spokesman said.
The contractor must submit an invoice showing the number and contents of the box and proof of delivery, but the group that distributed the food did not have reporting requirements.
While the rules facilitate the distribution of food, Fudge sees opportunities for people who don’t need to get free lunch.
“Who gets food? … Do you pay someone to really give it to people who are supposed to have it? We don’t have that answer, “he said.
Scott doubts that cheating is a big problem.
“The majority of the people in the line for a long time will not wait if they don’t need food,” he said.
Starting September 1, distributors must declare that their non-profit partners can ensure that only people in need get lunch boxes, a USDA spokesman said.
Fudge believes that simply increasing SNAP funding might be better than creating a lunch box program.
“Even people who are poor or starving still have dignity, and they must be allowed to buy and feed their families what they choose,” Fudge said.
Johnson agreed that SNAP could be used to meet some increased demand, but given the problems with the grocery store supply chain at the beginning of the pandemic, it was not a complete answer.
“We’ve talked about the farmers who throw milk. They don’t throw milk because there is no demand. They dispose of milk because the traditional distribution system is broken, “he said.
Jahana Hayes’s representative, D-Conn., Asked why the program did not have quotas to buy from small farmers, minorities and beginners.
Ibach said the USDA had held a webinar to help farmers learn how to sell to the program, and the emphasis on local food might have helped small farmers.
But in the end, he said, “implementing the program quickly is one of our main considerations.”
Some Republicans complain that looking into the lunch box program is interrupted from more important work.
“Instead of continuing to carry out a very successful program, we must turn our attention to supporting American farmers and ranchers during this difficult time,” said Representative Michael Conaway, R-Texas.