April 15, 2021

USDA to end food box program, United Fresh calls it ‘political statement’

The USDA will end the Farmers to Families Food Box program in May, according to several media outlets.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Photo: USDA

“We’re going to continue to provide healthy food but we’re going to do it through the most efficient system that we have. The reality is the food box program was set up to respond to COVID. There were a lot of problems with it, a lot of problems,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a congressional hearing April 14.

The remainder of the money that was allocated to the food box program will be used to support existing food aid programs, and the agency is planning to start a a new produce box program run through food banks.

“We’re going to take what we’ve learned is the best of that program and incorporate it into our traditional, regular programs, which are very efficient in terms of food distribution,” Vilsack said. “That way you get the best of both worlds.”

The USDA plans to purchase fresh produce for a produce box program to run through food banks.

It will be paid through pandemic assistance funding that supplements the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) for the remainder of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2021, however a USDA spokesperson said the budget for it hasn’t been determined.

The boxes will be 10-12 pounds and contain 3-5 pounds of vegetables, 3-5 pounds of fruit and at least two locally grown items if available.

The pre-solicitation announcement can be found here.

Qualification requirements can be found here.

United Fresh reaction

The United Fresh Produce Association issued the following statement April 15 on the end of the Farmers to Families Food Box program:

“On behalf of the millions of Americans who gained access to healthy fresh produce throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we are deeply disappointed in USDA’s decision to end the food box program. This decision is shortsighted, and comments disparaging the program are a slap in the face to the thousands of volunteers, nonprofits, regional food distributors and farmers who worked together in communities across the country to deliver healthy foods to people in their time of greatest need.

“For a major new program put together rapidly in a time of crisis, the food box program certainly included challenges. Yet, hundreds of community non-profits and nutrition advocates have found delivering fresh produce directly to those in need has great potential to truly make a difference in the health of millions of Americans. Speaking personally, United Fresh has worked with small farmers, distributors, food banks and community organizations over the past several months to submit more than 30 recommendations to USDA on ways to improve efficiency, accountability and assured delivery of high-quality produce to people in need.

“Yet, it is apparent that USDA neither considered these recommendations nor listened to the wide range of support for the program in its recent public listening session. This sudden decision seems more a political statement repudiating a program begun in a former Administration than an objective evaluation of the program’s ability to improve Americans’ health. Ending the program abruptly rather than looking for ways to continue funding and to improve its execution is a terrible mistake as the COVID crisis has most seriously impacted those with diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes, with greater hospitalization rates and even death compared with healthier populations.

“Now that the Administration has ended this program, USDA bears a tremendous responsibility to develop new programs to get fresh, healthy foods to people in need. We cannot afford to go back to old, tired feeding programs that do not prioritize nutrition security as much as calorie security. It is time for bold action to address the nutrition health crisis facing our nation, and USDA needs to lead the way.”

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