Anti-hunger experts warned that several other federal food programs are also set to expire, causing food banks across the country to lose about 50 percent of the food they receive from the Agriculture Department, even as food banks report an average 60 percent increase in need.
The program has gone through four rounds of funding since it began this spring: $1.2 billion in contracts were awarded in the first round, $1.76 billion in the second, and $1 billion in the third. The fourth round was cut to $500 million. The USDA, in a statement, acknowledged that the amount of funding in that last round, which covered November and December, “resulted in some non-profits being unable to participate and fewer box deliveries.”
But the USDA added that many nonprofit organizations chose to receive the boxes at a higher rate earlier in the program with the understanding that this would deplete supplies for the last two months of the year. But multiple nonprofit organizations interviewed by The Washington Post said they were not apprised of the limited food resources for this round.
“The needs are beyond what we can comprehend,” said Lawdia Kennedy, who oversees a biweekly food drive in suburban Atlanta. “We had three truckloads scheduled for Saturday and they just vanished. Six states are right now being told there will be no food, right before Christmas. It’s hard to put into words what this means for the families I serve.”
Kennedy, who runs a nonprofit called Queen Material Community Center, scrambled unsuccessfully to find an alternative source of food. “I’ve been telling people that [the food drive] is postponed and might happen next weekend,” she said, “but that hope is turning into a lie.”
Likewise, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank has seen “a huge decrease” in the number of boxes it receives from the program, according to David May, director of marketing and communications. “We are currently receiving 100,000 pounds of [boxes] per week, while we were receiving 3 million pounds per week during the summer,” May said.
In Florida, the shortfall in the Farmers to Families program was evident Saturday in the parking lot of a shuttered motel about a dozen miles from Disney World. At 6:45 a.m., Yrais Vinana sat in her car, engine off, surrounded by hundreds of laid-off workers who had begun queuing up before dawn for food.
Until this past week, the food drive, run by the Society of St. Andrew, an anti-hunger charity, and the Unite Here Local 737 union, had distributed $155,805 worth of Farmers to Families food boxes every Saturday. For the past two months, Vinana, who is on furlough from her custodial job at Disney’s Grand Floridian property, could count on receiving one or two 32-pound boxes of food that typically included fresh fruit, milk, meat and cheese — enough to feed her family for three or four days. In Florida, the USDA contracted with Oakes Farms, a major food distributor, to supply the boxes each week.
This past Saturday was different. Instead of boxes of fresh food paid for by the federal government, the union dipped into its savings and raised money on Facebook to buy ramen, canned vegetables and Goya beans at Walmart.
When the line began moving around 7 a.m., trunks popped open and volunteers, many of whom were also laid-off Disney workers, tossed in the plastic bags of food.
“One bag per car, no exceptions,” yelled Jeremy Haicken, president of Unite Here Local 737. Almost under his breath, he added, “People can’t believe the government promised food and reneged.”
Trunk lids slammed. Masked volunteers called out, “Have a good one!” Vinana exited the parking lot and turned onto a gritty stretch of highway lined with mini-golf courses, massage parlors, escape rooms, pawnshops and “family fun centers.” She and others in the food line wouldn’t realize how paltry this week’s assistance was until they unpacked their bags at home.
The Farmers to Families Food Box program began in May in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the crippling recession and the giant food lines forming across the country. It launched amid great fanfare and with the backing of President Trump’s daughter Ivanka.
The program paid large food distributors to supply food boxes to nonprofits running food lines across the country. The smaller $500 million award for the program’s fourth phase has left some communities that took part in the spring and summer without a critical source of food this winter. The Adirondack region of New York, for example, received food for the first three rounds but was not selected for the final round, according to John Bernardi of the United Way of the Adirondack Region.
“That left a palpable void. The turnout had been unbelievable through the spring and summer. The boxes were really outstanding, with fresh food, meat and dairy,” Bernardi said. “This has left the food pantries overwhelmed.”
Other regions received funding for the most recent round, but it wasn’t enough to sustain them through the end of the year. Oakes Farms, a major Florida-based farming and food distribution company, was awarded $68 million in late October to supply food boxes in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky and the Virgin Islands. Two weeks into the program, Oakes officials said they realized that the money was not going to last, said Steve Veneziano, the company’s vice president. Veneziano said he and other Oakes executives assumed that the USDA would supply extra funds to meet the growing need in December. But the cash never came.
“We just didn’t know until it was too late,” he said. “The demand was just so overwhelming. We really needed two to two and a half times the award. We could’ve easily spent $150 million.”
The impact of that shortage quickly rippled through the Southeast last week as Veneziano called the food drives he was scheduled to supply to tell them that there was no money left for food. One of the first calls he made was to Kelly Stainner, who as program coordinator for the Florida chapter of the Society of St. Andrew is one of Oakes’s largest customers. Stainner’s group is responsible for distributing about 10,000 Oakes-supplied food boxes each week to nonprofit partners such as the Unite Here 737 local, which runs the Kissimmee food distribution site.
“Is there anything you can do?” Stainner recalled several of her partners asking her.
“I’ve tried. I’ve begged,” she told them. “There’s just no money.”
The shortfall in funds also took Mary Diez-Castillo, vice president of Vision Community Outreach in Hialeah, Fla., completely by surprise. She was supposed to get 12,000 boxes last week from Oakes, but instead got zero. “We were getting 5 to 6 tractor trailers a day,” she said. “We fed 275,000 people in the month of November. We set up in shopping centers, in parks, in all the cities around here.”
The bad news sent her searching for alternatives. She cold-called 27 produce companies asking for donations and pivoted briefly to Mac Edwards Produce in the Doral area. But it, too, ran out of food money on Nov. 30.
“We are a nonprofit, run by volunteers with no salaries,” she said as she drove Friday to South Florida in search of food.
Like Haicken and Local 737, she is committed to continuing to provide food to laid-off workers until Congress passes a new relief bill, which could provide additional, emergency funding for the USDA food program. “We thought this would run until Dec. 31,” she said. “We’ll keep insisting. We won’t give up.”
The unexpected shortfall in the Farmers to Families Food Box program could be the first of several hits facing food banks across the country this winter.
The Food Purchase and Distribution Program, a component of the Trump administration’s aid to farmers who were suffering from the trade war with China, allocated $7.1 billion for direct food purchases for food assistance. The initiative bought commodity foods directly from farmers and distributed those goods to food banks. It ends Dec. 31.
These two programs alone accounted for 1.7 billion of the 5 billion meals distributed by Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, the organization’s chief executive.
In total, food banks across the country are poised to lose about half of the food they have been receiving free from the federal government, Babineaux-Fontenot said.
Forty percent of people turning to American food banks have never relied on them before, she added. Many of these newcomers, who are unfamiliar with other federal food assistance programs, turn first to the food lines that depend on the food box program for help. Based on estimates of increased unemployment and poverty, food insecurity could rise from 35 million at the start of 2020 to 50 million people by year’s end.
Currently, about $236 million in USDA funding is available for states to spend as part of the Emergency Food Assistance Program, a much smaller federal program that provides low-income Americans with emergency food assistance at no cost, and another $183.3 million is available from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. But it is unclear how, or how swiftly, states could utilize these funds to make up for the loss of food boxes or other federal aid.
Of all the federal programs, the shortfall to the Farmers to Families Food Box program is perhaps the most urgent, because it is hitting families now. Peter Sharma, the owner of the Seasons Florida Resort in Kissimmee, which opened its parking lot to the weekly food drive, watched on Saturday morning as the union volunteers organized 20-bushel laundry bins full of the hastily assembled food bags.
The hotel has been closed since March, Sharma’s 24 employees furloughed.
Sharma recently put his house on the market to raise money to pay his annual tax bill. If it sells, he and his wife plan to move into his empty motel and wait for the tourists to return, hopefully by this summer.
Most weeks he asks the union to set aside some of the USDA food boxes for his furloughed employees. This week they would have to get by with the union-purchased plastic bags of beans and ramen.
“This is a herculean effort,” he said, watching the line move. “These people, they’re not the homeless. They’re working. They’re your neighbors.”