Soaring demand from hungry families and a funding cutoff by the Trump administration led to the cancellation of weekly food drives across the country, leaving tens of thousands without a critical supply of food just before the holidays.
“With over 3.3 billion meals distributed to families across this nation, I am proud to share that thanks to the Trump administration’s efforts, the Farmers to Families Food Box Program has an additional $1.5 billion to continue to feed families in need, provide employment and support our small farmers,” Ivanka Trump, an adviser to the president, said in a statement.
The program, which has been a staple of food banks and food pantries throughout the pandemic, pays large food distributors to supply pre-packed boxes to nonprofits running food lines.
The program served 132.5 million food boxes by the end of 2020.
After initial rounds of more than $1 billion, funding was reduced to $500 million by the fourth and final round, leaving food lines in the Southeast, California and New York without money to buy food.
After The Washington Post reported the farm box initiative was running out of funds, Ivanka Trump reinforced the importance of the program, which has also been a boon to farmers, to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, White House officials said. “This new round of Farmers to Families Food Boxes will go a long way in helping American families access nutritious and healthy meals as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Perdue said.
The new money drew a mixed reaction from nonprofit groups running the food lines. They were thankful for the return of the food boxes, which typically included fresh fruit, milk, meat and cheese — enough to feed a family for several days. They also were frustrated that a critical program had run out of funds just before the holidays, forcing nonprofits to cancel food drives at the last minute or scramble to find alternatives.
The Unite Here Local 737 union, which represents Orlando-area theme park and hotel workers hit hard by the recession, had distributed $155,805 worth of Farmers to Families food boxes every Saturday since the spring but canceled its three planned drives in December. In the interim it took to Facebook and other social media platforms to raise money to provide mostly canned goods and dried noodles to families in need.
The new funds should allow the union to resume passing out fresh food in January to families who typically begin lining up in the parking lot as early as 3 a.m.
“What a shame that it took national publicity about Americans going hungry for months to get action from Secretary Perdue,” said Jeremy Haicken, the union’s president.
The Northern Illinois Food Bank, which serves the suburbs of Chicago and rural Illinois, reached into its savings to purchase more food, according to chief executive Julie Yurko.
“In June we got 8 million pounds of food from the food box program, in November we got 1 million, and I’m still waiting on December figures. So we are doubling the food we are purchasing because the need is so dramatic. But that is not sustainable,” she said.
She said the pre-packed boxes cut down on volunteer hours during a period when volunteerism has been drastically reduced, in addition to supplying an array of fresh and healthy foods seldom seen in food banks, which often rely on more shelf-stable products.
At the height of the program, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank was distributing 80 pounds of food per family, according to chief executive Michael Flood. It’s a challenge to replace the volume of produce, dairy and meat items that the program has provided, he said. Some individuals are turned away, and most families receive less food.
Flood said food stamp benefits, which are meant as a “supplemental program,” last families about two weeks, before families need to turn to food lines. He estimates a gap of 2 million pounds weekly at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank that the food box program could fill.
Kate Leone, chief government relations officer for Feeding America, applauded the continuation of the program but raised concerns about its effectiveness.
“We have a lot of open questions, and Congress has open questions about how the money was spent and whether it was spent most effectively and efficiently,” she said. The program had two goals, she said, to feed hungry people but also to provide financial help to distributors and producers who were laying people off.
“Are you prioritizing the maximum amount of food for people in need, or is it a job support program?” she said. “Ivanka really highlighted the small-business side much more than the people-in-need side.”