Food banks stress aid still needed ahead of pandemic food aid program ending

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MANSFIELD, TX (NewsNation Now) — The Biden administration is canceling the Farmers to Families Food Box program that was launched last year to feed out out-of-work Americans during the coronavirus pandemic because of high costs and delivery issues.

Data suggests 42 million people may experience food insecurity this year, including 13 million children; Feeding America projects Texas could be the most-impacted state.

Despite widespread vaccination rollouts and hints of normalcy returning to everyday life, Harvesting in Mansfield Center continues to add on 30-40 families per week who are in need.

“The number one reason for them needing assistance is loss of jobs or loss of hours and even though our economy seems to be bouncing back a little bit from the pandemic, food insecurity takes a long time to recover,” explained Lisa Richardson, executive director of Harvesting in Mansfield Center. “So they are still without food. Our line is still just as long as it was a year ago.”

Richardson says her team has fed about 27,000 people throughout the pandemic. Like so many others, the food bank relies on the Farmers to Families Food Box program. It was started by former President Donald Trump in May 2020 as a way to get food to hungry Americans quickly — connecting them to food that would have otherwise gone to waste.

“The boxes contain food they don’t get to buy in the store, and it’s essential for their weekly meals,” Richardson said.

The government hired hundreds of private companies last spring to buy food no longer needed by restaurants, schools and cruise ships and haul it to overwhelmed food banks. But the program faced spilled and spoiled food, high costs and uneven distribution nationwide, according to interviews with food banks and distributors, and an analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture invoice data obtained through Freedom of Information requests.

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The USDA spent $4 billion on the food box program in 2020 – six times its normal emergency food budget. After reviewing the program, President Joe Biden’s administration has decided not to continue it after May, USDA Communications Director Matt Herrick told Reuters.

When the food box program was rolled out in May 2020, the Trump administration touted it as a way of getting food to hungry Americans quickly. But by late June, the program fell short of delivery targets, Reuters reported. The government provided little guidance to food pantries and sometimes inexperienced distributors, who were often left to connect with one another on their own.

The Biden administration says some companies may have overcharged the USDA.

“There was an unequal cost associated with the distribution and filling of these boxes. Some people made a significant percentage from filling the boxes,” Vilsack said on a March 3 call with reporters.

The USDA also cited too many spoiled deliveries to justify continuing the program.

“Not one time can I say that that’s happened,” said Cornelius Lewis.

Lewis drives from Dallas to Mansfield once a month to pick up fresh Farmers to Families Food Boxes and additional food from Richardson. NewsNation spoke with him on delivery day, and he said those boxes have been in perfect shape and critical.

“The pantry gives out food, but the farmer’s boxes actually give them nutritional products like yogurt, lettuce, tomato, onions—things that you need to make a nutritional meal,” Lewis explained. “To not have it during the pandemic, I don’t see how.”

Richardson says the food bank gets a weekly shipment of 700 Farmers to Families Food Boxes, and they’re handed out in a matter of days. Without them, come June she’s preparing to restructure budgeting to make up for their loss.

Richardson says she has a message for President Biden and the USDA.

“My message to them would be please come and visit us on a day we have distribution and talk to some of these families who don’t have regular groceries who are embarrassed and humiliated to be in this line,” Richardson said. “No, we were not consulted in any way shape, or form and I don’t know any other foodbanks who were either.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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