Vilsack: USDA will end food box program but distribute produce, dairy products
In a three-hour, wide-ranging hearing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee today that USDA will end the Farmers to Families Food Box Program established by the Trump administration but will continue to distribute the produce and dairy products that became popular with food banks and other beneficiaries.
Vilsack noted that USDA announced late last week that it will purchase fresh produce for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), using pandemic assistance funding made available by Congress, and that he also expects USDA to receive dairy products through food donations.
“We are going to continue to provide healthy food through the most efficient system we have,” Vilsack told Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., who asked why USDA was canceling the food box program. Vilsack said USDA’s information gathering on the program had shown it had “significant administrative costs and inadequate accounting of where the boxes were delivered,” but that he wants to “incorporate the best of that program” into traditional food distribution programs.
“USDA will be offering boxes of pre-packed, fresh produce through TEFAP in addition to the single varieties that are already available to order,” USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service said. “The fresh produce package will include a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables that meet the following requirements. A 10- to 12-pound package that includes a minimum of at least four of the following: 3-5 pounds of vegetables (no more than 3 pounds of root vegetables; i.e. potatoes, yams, carrots, onions, etc.), 3-5 pounds of fruit; at least two locally grown fruit or vegetable items, as available, and if not available, add an additional fruit and vegetable item to meet a minimum package weight range of 10-12 pounds. Packages will be expected to have a shelf life of seven to 10 days once delivered to the location listed on the contract.”
Information on solicitations will be released in the near future.
The United Fresh Produce Association said it “appreciates that USDA is including fresh produce boxes in the TEFAP program, but strongly urges that a new produce box program be developed as part of a fundamental realignment of USDA feeding programs.”
United Fresh noted that USDA recently concluded its public listening session and comment period on the future of the food box program in which United Fresh’s 80-member working group on the produce box program submitted some 30 recommendations to USDA on ways to best implement the program for the future.
At the hearing, Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., subcommittee chairman, noted that the budget release from the White House last week was “bare outlines of the budget” and asked Vilsack to present his vision for running the department a second time.
Vilsack repeated previous statements that he wants to focus on “four big ideas”:
▪ The notion that climate change, while an existential threat, presents an opportunity to bring profitability back to agriculture.
▪ Moving beyond compensating individuals who have experienced racial discrimination and toward addressing systemic discrimination and rural areas of persistent poverty.
▪ Recognizing that farm profitability is an important part of sustainability and resilience.
▪ Making nutrition security as important as food security to address obesity and diet-related diseases.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., subcommittee ranking member, told Vilsack he wants to move the discussion about broadband from wiring communities to “an ecosystem of livability” in which people know how to use telehealth, distance learning and e-commerce.
Fortenberry noted that USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong told the subcommittee that she did not know what the “metrics of success” on broadband should be. Fortenberry told Vilsack he is concerned about people knowing how to use broadband, and Vilsack said he wants to make sure that broadband speeds are as fast as needed.
Fortenberry said the public is fatigued with political infighting and said Congress and the administration should work together “to get some things done.”
“Our world is screaming for meaning,” Fortenberry added. “I don’t believe anything should be thrown away.”
Fortenberry also noted that Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently said that wealthy countries need to move toward 100% synthetic meat and asked Vilsack if he agreed with that statement.
Vilsack said he agreed with Gates that farmers are great stewards and that emerging technologies cannot be banned, because competitors will take them up.
After House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., questioned whether JBS, a Brazilian-owned meat producer with an American subsidiary, should be eligible for aid because it has been involved in corruption cases, Vilsack said the federal government needs to examine its procurement policies to make sure they are supportive of American values. He added that the Packers and Stockyards Act needs to be enforced and that more meat plants should be built.
In response to questions from House Appropriations Committee ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, about U.S. dependence on farm exports to China, Vilsack said that, as CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, he learned that the United States needs more “people on the ground” to analyze and appreciate markets, partnerships between commodity groups and universities to create products that use U.S. ingredients and telling the story of U.S. food safety and product quality.
Vilsack also told Granger that sign-ups for USDA programs are at the same level as in pre-pandemic times. Local Farm Service Agency offices have gotten flexibility on opening offices with more than 25% of employees present, although only those who want to go to the office under those conditions are required to do so.
After Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, urged Vilsack to finalize the organic livestock and poultry rule, he said he wants to move forward quickly, but questions have been raised about the economic analysis of the poultry section and that it will be necessary “to start from scratch” on that.
When Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., noted that the American Farm Bureau Federation is concerned about changes to the estate tax including stepped-up basis, Vilsack said concern about those issues requires understanding the details of the situation and that estate taxes are not likely to apply to many farms. But he added that he would make sure Treasury Department officials know of the farmers’ concerns.
Harris, a physician, noted that physicians are urging that rules on what people can buy with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and suggest that the SNAP rules be aligned with the rules under the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which has nutritional standards.
The exchange with Harris also resulted in a display of the differences between Republicans and Democrats about the programs to provide aid to farmers of color.
Harris said his constituents believe that “USDA was color blind but now it is color-preferenced and part of a woke agenda.” USDA has a reputation as a nonpolitical agency and should stay that way, Harris said.
Bishop asked Vilsack to explain how the Biden administration’s USDA Equity Commission will be established. Vilsack said that the commission will be established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act and that the committee will be composed of outside experts. He also explained that Black farmers’ lack of access to farm subsidies and farm programs when white farmers had them had long-term implications.
Harris told Bishop he listened “intently” to that part of Vilsack’s presentation.
In response to a question from Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Mich., about schools serving low-fat milk, Vilsack said the department is torn between the recommendations of nutritionists who favor low-fat milk and the unwillingness of children to drink it. Vilsack said USDA wants children drinking more milk because it is good for them.
Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., said she considers the ban on using SNAP benefits to buy hot foods is “unjustified.” Vilsack noted that USDA is undertaking a close examination of the SNAP program to make it more modern.
At the end of the hearing, Vilsack told Bishop he expects nominations of undersecretaries to be announced soon.
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