DeLauro introduces bill to revive Trump food box program
House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., today, Sept. 21 introduced the Fresh Produce Procurement Reform Act, which would essentially revive the Trump administration’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program for fresh produce that Democrats criticized when then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue established it.
The bill would require USDA to partner with growers, distributors, and food hubs to provide fresh, U.S.-grown fruits and vegetables to community organizations such as schools, local food pantries, and youth organizations while prioritizing socially disadvantaged farmers and entities, regional food inequities, and local and regional food systems.
The bill covers only fresh produce, not the meat and dairy products that were also part of the Trump-era program. The Trump administration set up the program initially to absorb the produce that would normally go into the food service sector including restaurants, schools and universities, and to feed people who needed food during the pandemic. Farmers to Families distributed a total of 176 million boxes, Mollie Van Lieu, the United Fresh senior director of nutrition, said today. Members know if something “good or bad” happened in their districts, she said.
“Throughout 2020, USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program succeeded in connecting healthy fruits and vegetables from our nation’s farmers to hungry families who needed it the most,” DeLauro said in a news release. “I saw gratitude on the faces of so many families as I helped distribute boxes from Cecarelli’s Harrison Hill Farm at Common Ground High School in my district. Many of them would go on to say that never before had they had access to such high-quality, fresh produce.”
“That is why I was disappointed by Secretary Vilsack’s decision to end the program,” continued DeLauro. “In my view, the program should have been strengthened and continued as a way to get healthier foods to families and as an investment in our local producers and specialty crop growers, who traditionally fall outside of USDA’s commodity supports. The bill would abandon USDA’s low-cost bid model, and instead, require priority be given to local food systems and regional inequities. This bill is an important first step in leveraging USDA food purchasing to drive important reforms across our food system.”
DeLauro introduced the bill while the United Fresh Produce Association is meeting in Washington and its members are going to Capitol Hill to meet with members of the House and Senate.
Democrats were critical of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, often pointing out colorful examples of bad contractors and inefficiencies. The criticism was part of a conflict with Republicans over Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Republicans defended the food box program while Democrats said the money should go for increased SNAP benefits. The battle over a SNAP increase has been settled by the Biden administration’s evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, which resulted in an increase in benefits. United Fresh officials urged members heading to Capitol Hill to urge House members to co-sponsor DeLauro’s bill.
Van Lieu, who moderated a workshop at today’s meeting, said that the increase in SNAP benefits will help families in the program but not necessarily address the issue of getting more low-income consumers to eat healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables because those families still have to stretch the SNAP dollars and produce is still relatively expensive. Democrats may have criticized the Trump program but will be impressed that DeLauro, a progressive from Connecticut, introduced the bill, Van Lieu said.
The United Fresh nutrition workshop was attended by both industry and nonprofit groups, and the popularity of the food box program was evident. A series of speakers said it was one of the simplest, easy-to-use nutrition programs ever established by the federal government.
Rayne Thompson, a vice president for government relations and public policy at Sunkist and who was USDA Agricultural Marketing Service administrator in the Obama administration, said it was easy to use because it mimicked the marketplace rather than using normal government procurement procedures and audits. People who are working, who wear decent clothes, come to the food bank after work to get food because the cost of living in California is so high, Thompson said.
Jack Baran, who worked for a St. Louis food bank before becoming head of business development at Ole Tyme Produce Inc. in St. Charles, Mo., said his company had never been involved in government contracts but got involved in order to keep its employees and help its producers. Now that the government has ended the program, nonprofits are buying the food boxes. His company includes recipes to go along with unfamiliar foods, he added.
Sam Chasin, senior manager for youth development, partnerships and policy for YMCA of the USA, said that the program had allowed the organization to help the parents of poor children who got meals at the Y in conjunction with its other programs.
Farmers to Families “served the newly poor, the stressed families dealing with new circumstances,” Chasin said.
Trevor Moe, senior director for partnership development at Save the Children, noted that his organization is known for its international work but also works in rural areas of the United States. In remote rural areas such as Appalachia and Indian reservations, the emergency food networks do not have storage facilities and usually distribute shelf-stable foods. It’s important, he said, to address the question of providing transportation to “the last mile” – the point of distribution to individuals. His organization moved 600,000 boxes holding food valued at $22 million, he said.
The feedback was “incredible,” he said, adding that recipients said, “This program saved Thanksgiving.”
Critics have said people can get produce through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), another USDA program, but Moe said it does not reach rural America.
Melissa Dake, director of Operation Food Secure in Topeka, Kan., said from the audience that while the national media showed people lined up in “miles of cars,” her organization got food out to towns of 1,000 people.
Van Lieu also noted that congressional supporters will want to be sure local producers are involved and that United Fresh has worked with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to find local suppliers.
Van Lieu said USDA spends relatively little on fresh produce compared with the procurement of shelf-stable items, and Thompson from Sunkist said that the food box program has proved to be “the most effective model in getting volumes of fresh produce.”
Now that the Biden administration has ended the program, House members may begin to hear from constituents that there are no food boxes, one audience member said.
“We know that demand is high for fresh fruits and vegetables at emergency feeding sites around the country, yet USDA’s procurement infrastructure is not built to purchase and distribute a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables,” United Fresh President and CEO Tom Stenzel said in a news release in which he thanked DeLauro for introducing the bill.
Other organizations supporting the DeLauro bill include Boys & Girls Club of America, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the American Heart Association, Save the Children, The Common Market, National Center for Appropriate Technology, the Community Action Partnership of Orange County, CA, and the Des Moines Area Religious Council Food Pantry.
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