© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Food is distributed in the cafeteria of the New Life Centers in Chicago
By Christopher Walljasper
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Yogurt was ubiquitous when the volunteers opened boxes of fruit, frozen meat and dairy products that were shipped and spilled when shipped to a local food bank. Walworth County, Wisconsin.
They rushed to clean and deliver packages of frozen meatballs, apples, milk, and yoghurt to the car for families in need before they were spoiled.
The food comes from the Farmer Family Food Box program that the Trump administration launched to provide unemployed Americans with rescued food from farmers who would throw it away for pandemic coronavirus in the food supply chain.
The government hired hundreds of private companies last spring to buy food no longer needed for restaurants, schools and cruise ships and ship it to overwhelming food banks. However, the program faces scattering and spoilage of food, high costs and uneven distribution nationwide, interviews with food banks and distributors, and Analysis of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) billing data obtained through Freedom of Information requirements.
Some companies have charged government fees more than double the program average while deliveries to food banks are sometimes delayed. When the government contracts with new suppliers, some of the food banks that rely on the program have stopped accepting food. At the same time, contractors have assigned churches or daycare centers that do not have enough refrigeration.
“Food is left to spoil,” said Susan Hughes, chief executive officer of Walworth County Food and Diaper Pantry.
USDA spent $ 4 billion on its food cans program by 2020 – six times its regular emergency food budget. After reviewing the program, President Joe Biden’s administration decided not to continue the program after May, USDA Communications Director Matt Herrick told Reuters.
Under newly appointed Secretary Tom Vilsack, USDA focused on various anti-hunger initiatives, including expanding food stamp subsidies and increasing food purchases through existing food distribution programs. There is a government, says Herrick.
“We are not going to replace the program,” he said.
While food bank executives are grateful for the bulk of fresh food from the food can program – and they insist that aid is still needed – many say more families could have been raised. by sticking to existing programs with proven quality and supervision.
Greg Ibach, former USDA deputy secretary for marketing and management programs under the Trump administration, helped design the food cans program for about a month. He says it works as well as other USDA programs that take years to develop.
“We were in a hurry. People were hungry; there was no food in the grocery stores – if they were, they couldn’t buy it,” Ibach said. “We have a lot of food out the door and in everyone’s hands.”
HIGH COST, ANY BOX
When the food box program was launched in May 2020, the Trump administration advertised it as a quick way to get food for hungry Americans. But by the end of June, the program had failed to meet its delivery target, according to Reuters. The government provides very little guidance to groceries and sometimes inexperienced distributors who often connect with each other. [L1N2E91DJ]
After several states, including Montana and Nevada, received very little early food, the Trump administration in June signed with Gold Star Foods, a California-based school food distributor. , to reach underserved areas, Gold Star CEO Sean Leer said in an interview.
Gold Star billed the government between $ 87 and $ 102 in October and November for cans of fruit, meat, and dairy products. According to USDA billing data, this was more than double the average of similar boxes from other companies at the time. Leer said these costs reflect the rise in food and freight costs during a pandemic that disrupts the supply chain.
Leer said the company had a time with unprofitable deliveries. He noted that during the February cold spell in Texas, Gold Star sent food to the state from California because weather caused supply problems in Texas.
Food delivered by Gold Star will account for less than 2% of federal spending on the food box program by 2020, although that number will increase to just under 9% by April 2021, according to Reuters on USDA invoice data.
Initially, companies deliver food in different quantities, making it difficult to compare costs between different suppliers. But in September, USDA standardized food cans at no more than 24 pounds after feedback from food banks.
Between October and December, invoice data showed that seven out of 105 companies, including Gold Star Foods, charged the government twice the program’s average price per pound of food. Three of these companies were awarded contracts worth nearly $ 32 million by the Trump administration in January 2021.
The Biden administration says some companies may have overcharged USDA.
“There is an unequal cost involved in delivering and filling these boxes,” Vilsack said.
Food cans designated by the USDA for the year 2021 to be delivered to the continental United States cost between $ 27 and $ 48 a box. Cheaper boxes have created new challenges and added burdens to food banks, said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. Cheaper boxes contain lower quality food and food companies sometimes refuse to deliver them to smaller pantry, causing local organizations to try to find more money for delivery, she to speak.
RURAL LEFT REGION
Although some regional food banks have deliveries to many counties, most of the smaller food banks serve only one county. Brian Greene, chief executive officer of the Houston Food Bank, said deliveries to other counties will incur the expense of the food banks.
Reuters analysis of USDA data shows that this program particularly has difficulty reaching rural counties. While densely populated cities and counties get millions of cans of food, 896 counties – or nearly a third – do not, according to USDA data.
The USDA’s Herrick said the Biden administration’s assessment of the program shows problems in how food aid is transported.
“Many rural communities have been completely un cared for,” he said.
Food Counters have worked with dozens of food companies over the course of seven months by 2020. Every six to twelve weeks, USDA introduces a new phase of the program, changing real suppliers. and forcing food banks to scramble to connect with new suppliers or lose food supplies.
“The USDA does not give (distributors) any instructions on serving or continuing to serve anyone,” said Harvard’s Broad Leib. “You can’t count on something if one day it’s there, then the next day it doesn’t.”
Despite the program’s flaws, the food banks say nearly 133 million cans of food delivered by 2020 averted an even bigger crisis.
Kate Leone, Senior Vice President of Government Relations at Feeding America, a national food banking network, says there are hungry Americans in most cities and counties nationwide. The organization estimates that about half of children in some counties are food insecure – worried about where their next meal might come from.