USDA shuts down food program that gave millions to Michigan farmers
A government program intended to buy food from farmers impacted by foodservice disruptions caused by the global pandemic and deliver it to those in need will end in May.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) canceled its Farmers to Families food box program citing "serious challenges," including food waste and pricing. Through five rounds, the program awarded more than $115 million in contracts to several Michigan food distributors to buy fruits, vegetables, meats and a variety of food items to pack in boxes to distribute to those in need.
The program was initiated last April under the Trump administration as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistant Program. Food for the program to feed Americans in need came from farmers with unsold produce who would have had to throw it away as the pandemic disrupted the food supply chain.
"The Farmers to Families program was designed and implemented as a temporary effort to respond to severe market disruption caused by a global pandemic, including the collapse of food service, largescale food loss and waste, and curtailed export markets in the early stages of the pandemic," Matt Herrick, USDA spokesman told the Free Press in an email.
But according to Herrick, program challenges included that distributing the food boxes wasn't based on need and prices ranged greatly, from $28 to $105 per box.
Other challenges the USDA listed that the program faced:
-Data on which counties received food boxes wasn't captured and as many as 900 counties didn't receive food from the program.
-Food in the boxes varied from place to place.
-Food safety was an issue as boxes with perishables often went unrefrigerated.
-Small businesses could not compete.
According to a Reuters report, some companies charged "more than double the program average while delivery to food banks was sometimes late or not received at all. In addition food was delivered, Reuters reported, to places that "lacked adequate refrigeration."
From October through December, Reuters found that seven out of 105 companies charged the government double the program’s median price per pound of food. Reuters also reported that three companies were awarded contracts for nearly $32 million by the previous administration in January 2021. Reuters obtained USDA invoice data through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
Over the past year and through April 15, more than $4 billion has been spent on the program. Throughout the country, more than 157 million food boxes containing meat, dairy, and produce bought from farmers were delivered.
"We're overwhelmed," Dr. Phil Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, told the Michigan Farm Bureau.
“They're discontinuing this program because of some of the difficulties they ran into, but they're not walking away from the need,” said Knight. “I'm confident that they're going to be able to do something.”
The program worked by the USDA awarding contracts to local and regional food distributors across the country including in Michigan and metro Detroit to distribute the food boxes.
Many of these food distributors were also impacted by disruptions caused by shutdowns in the restaurant, hotel, and other food service industries.
Sam Maceri of Tom Maceri and Son produce in St. Clair Shores is disappointed that the program is ending.
"We received a lot of feedback from the end-user, whether it was churches, food banks or food distribution sites, that it was meeting the needs of the people in the community," he said.
Participating distributors and wholesalers received food items and packaged them in pre-approved boxes. The boxes were to be delivered to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need, according to the USDA.
Here are the Michigan companies that received contracts during five rounds of the USDA Farmers to Families food box distribution. Several of these distributors also distributed boxes to other states.
John Kran, Michigan Farm Bureau's national legislative counsel, in a news release said "it's not uncommon for a new administration to take a new look at existing programs and make tweaks."
“USDA recently solicited feedback from the public on the program overall and has decided to make some modifications,” Kran said. “We look forward to working with the USDA on the next steps as they continue getting food into the hands of those in need as well as assisting farmers in navigating the supply chain uncertainties caused by COVID-19."
The USDA is not replacing the program but will continue to provide hunger relief through existing nutrition programs to meet food assistance needs including its recent fresh produce box program through the Emergency Food Assistance Program. A new dairy donation program is also in the works to combat food waste. Current programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), school meal programs for children, and others, continue to be expanded, according to the USDA.