Democrats perfer SNAP increase over food box program |

Democrats perfer SNAP increase over food box program

The Hagstrom Report
Greg Ibach, undersecretary of USDA Marketing and Regulatory Programs, right, is accompanied by Bruce Summers, administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service.
Photo by Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report

The Trump administration’s $3 billion Farmers to Families Food Box Program set up to provide people with food during the coronavirus pandemic should not continue when current funding runs out at the end of this fiscal year, House Agriculture Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations Chairwoman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, told The Hagstrom Report.

The food box program “is not the most effective way” to get food to hungry people, Fudge said after chairing an oversight hearing on the program. Fudge acknowledged “that there are probably some good things” in the program because people have gotten fruits and vegetables, dairy products and cooked pork and chicken through food banks, community and faith-based organizations and other nonprofits.

But Fudge and other Democrats were critical of the management of the program and said it is more important for the Senate to follow the House in passing a 15% increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“What I’m concerned about is: Are we getting the best bang for the buck in this program?” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said during the hearing. “We need to do oversight over what’s happening. My sense is we are getting a better deal through SNAP than these food boxes.”

But Peterson added, “The bottom line is we need to make sure people who are unemployed” and their children have enough food.

Agriculture Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach noted that in April “in just a few short weeks, USDA stood up FFFBP as a new and innovative multi-billion-dollar COVID response program to address three critical needs simultaneously: to provide markets for farmers faced with declining demand and the crisis of food rotting in fields and animals being euthanized; the food needs of newly unemployed Americans; and helping put suppliers and distributors back to work.”

Ibach added, “I would like to stress two important points: All commodities purchased, packaged, and delivered are of 100% domestic origin, and no vendor is paid until proof of delivery and compliance with the contract is confirmed.”

Ibach acknowledged that the food box program does not have the same standards as regular USDA food distribution programs, but said that was because it was supposed to be put in operation so quickly.

Ibach also acknowledged that there have been some problems and some complaints about geographic inequities. But when House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., complained that western Massachusetts had not gotten products equal to its needs, Ibach said that USDA had not received many offers from food distributors in the Northeast to participate in the program.

Fudge noted, “We’ve seen reports of companies awarded contracts with little to no experience in the timely sourcing and distribution of food, including nearly $40 million to a Texas wedding planner. That contractor committed to providing 750,000 boxes of food.” But Bruce Summers, the Agricultural Marketing Service administrator who accompanied Ibach to the hearing, testified that the company had in fact delivered 500,000 food boxes and been paid only for those.

Ibach noted that each time he visits a food bank, he is handed letters from families calling the boxes a lifeline. Republicans on the committee led by Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., the subcommittee chairman, defended the program.

Addressing concerns that some food banks do not have storage capacity or the ability to deliver the boxes to other locations, Ibach said, “We need to tell the food banks that they can say what they want in the box. They do not have to take food they need to store.”

Ibach said USDA will announce an opportunity for new and current vendors to submit proposals for approximately $500 million to $700 million that will be remaining when current contracts expire on Aug. 31. USDA will attempt to address “challenges and lessons learned” in that round of contracts, he said.

On a second panel, two food bank CEOs said they also believe that increasing SNAP benefits is the highest priority in nutrition policy.

“I would encourage boosting SNAP 15%,” said Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank. “Move people out of parking lots and into grocery stores.”

“We are not going to food-bank our way out of hunger,” said Matt Habash, president and CEO of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank in Grove City, Ohio.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Michael Conaway, R-Texas, accused Cooper and Habash of having their testimony written by Feeding America, the network of food banks that has joined other hunger groups in campaigning for an increase in SNAP benefits.

Cooper and Habash said they had written their own testimony, but they also called the continuation of the food box program — and for fixing some of the problems with the vendors.

Some food boxes contained 5-pound boxes of chicken labeled for restaurants without cooking instructions, Cooper said. In some boxes, “onions competed with cantaloupe” that were rotten, he added.

“We need the food stamp program, and we need additional food for people who do not qualify,” Habash said. ❖