Despite the Northeast reporting the highest number of coronavirus cases in the country over the course of the pandemic, the region received the second-lowest allocation of any area — less than 5% — of the more than $1 billion the federal government made available to help families in need of basic foods like meat, dairy and produce.
In a letter led by U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, nearly two dozen lawmakers from throughout the Northeast demanded Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture provide equitable resources to the region through the Farmers to Families Food Box program.
The program is meant to create partnerships with distributors and organizations to buy up to $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat products to then supply hungry families.
The lawmakers noted that 3.6 million people in the Northeast already experienced food insecurity prior to the pandemic. But the first round saw just $46 million go to distributors and organizations in the Northeast, about 4.4% of the $1.2 billion in the first round of USDA’s allotment, the lawmakers said.
A second round is underway between July 1 and Aug. 31, and the lawmakers said they “demand that our constituents receive equitable access” to the program.
The lawmakers also demanded answers. They called for explanations on USDA’s methodology to determine contract assignments with distributors and organizations, and details on any safeguards USDA will take to ensure allocations “reflect proportions of food insecurity” in a given region. They also seek a “detailed explanation of how the second round of funding will be distributed.”
After MassLive reached out to the agency, a USDA spokesperson said the goal of the program is to let producers sell food “previously destined for restaurants and bulk purchasers to suppliers, preventing waste, and helping Americans in need in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The nearly 200 approved distributors for the first phase of the Farmers to Families Food Box program included many small businesses and those that support local and regional farmers, which was part of the evaluation criteria for contract award,” the spokesperson added. “Federal contracts require strict adherence to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and other regulations.”
Proposals from distributors were “evaluated by, in descending order of importance, the technical information contained, past performance of the offeror, the offeror’s capability to perform, and the prices offered,” the spokesperson said. “Offerors had to meet all criteria in order to be competitive and have, or acquire, a Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (PACA) license to comply with the contractual requirement. All proposals were carefully reviewed by a team of contracting and technical experts and contracts made accordingly.”
The USDA says round one of the program led to the delivery of more than 35 million food boxes valued at $936 million. The next round aims to purchase up to $1.47 billion in food; as of July 21, the program has now delivered more than 43 million boxes to families in need, according to USDA.
“USDA is continuing to explore options to continue serving American farmers and families up to the program’s $3 billion authorization or until the emergency declaration ends,” the spokesperson said.
MassLive reached back out to USDA to ask if its overall strategy included any consideration of food insecurity or regional conditions prior to, and during, the pandemic.
The Times Union of Albany reported in late May that only 29 companies, out of 198 nationwide, won contracts to distribute food in the Northeast region; eight of them were from New York, a hotspot for the virus for months before new cases started to decline.
Local food banks told the newspaper it has been challenging to secure food boxes throughout the region.
The program was launched in May by Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter and advisor, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
The letter led by Pressley and McGovern comes a day after Ivanka Trump volunteered to hand out some of the Farmers to Families food boxes at a Washington, D.C. community center, according to The Hill. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany applauded the president’s daughter for her “great work” during a news briefing Tuesday; the Trump campaign, and Trump himself, then posted a clip of McEnany’s praise for Ivanka Trump on social media.
Ivanka Trump and Perdue previously noted many of the contractors signed on with USDA were small suppliers. But The San Antonio Express-News reported that a $39 million contract was awarded to a wedding and corporate event planner, CR8AD8, after allegedly falsifying some credentials.
The rollout of the program also faced rebuke because more than $60 million combined went to an avocado mail-order company, a trade finance corporation, and a health-and-wellness airport kiosk company, The Washington Post reported. Meanwhile, large food distribution companies and nonprofits well-versed in feeding the poor were bypassed, Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association president, told The Post.
Among others, Tuesday’s letter was signed by Massachusetts Reps. Richard Neal, Joe Kennedy III, Stephen Lynch, William Keating, Lori Trahan, and Katherine Clark, as well as Joe Courtney of Connecticut, Peter Welch of Vermont and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
Massachusetts was one of the first states to launch the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was signed into law in March. The program send funds to households of the roughly 470,000 children who qualify for free- and reduced-priced lunch, according to USDA.
Original story here.