How Trump's Food Box Initiative Overpaid And Underdelivered : Shots - Health News The Trump administration has been buying food from farmers and getting it to food banks. Food banks, however, say the program was not set up to deliver food efficiently.

How Trump's Food Box Initiative Overpaid And Underdelivered

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President Trump took some time to visit a fresh produce business in Mills River, N.C.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today I'm proud to announce that we will provide an additional $1 billion to fund the Farmers to Families Food Box programs. It's worked out so well.

PFEIFFER: This program buys food from farmers and distributes it through nonprofit organizations like food banks. But some of those food banks say the Trump administration overpaid for food and underdelivered. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: This food box program was launched back in the spring. When restaurants and schools and company cafeterias shut down, farmers who supplied them suddenly had no place to sell their crops. Some of them ended up destroying perfectly good food. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told the crowd at that event in North Carolina he got a call from the White House.


SONNY PERDUE: The president said, what's all this food that's being destroyed, milk being dumped, vegetables being plowed under?

CHARLES: It was especially disturbing because at that same time, food banks were overwhelmed by a surge of people who'd lost their jobs and needed help getting enough food to eat. So the USDA came up with the idea of food boxes. It awarded $3 billion in contracts to dozens of companies to buy vegetables, milk and meat, box up the food and get it to people through nonprofit organizations, mainly food banks. According to Brian Rose, CEO of Flavor 1st, the company that hosted the president's visit last week, it worked.


BRIAN ROSE: This has been a huge help for our family farms and has allowed them to continue to operate through this pandemic. Most importantly, this program has provided fresh, healthy food to Americans in this time of need.

CHARLES: The USDA says the program has distributed 75 million boxes of food so far. Eric Cooper, who's president of the food bank in San Antonio, Texas, says the boxes are about 20% of his organization's food inventory right now.

ERIC COOPER: Any family that's received one of these food boxes feels blessed and nourished, and I think it's a good thing.

CHARLES: But Cooper also says that money could have helped a lot more people, probably two or three times more, because the program was not set up to deliver food efficiently. First of all, the government paid a lot for it.

COOPER: You know, across the board, I think there was premium prices paid for all of these boxes, right? I mean, some of these food boxes, they were $40, $50, $60 for what typically you'd get at a grocery store for about 20.

CHARLES: The USDA was paying that much partly because the idea was companies that got these contracts would take the boxes all the way to food bank distribution points and drop them in people's cars. But many food banks, including Cooper's, found that most contractors simply couldn't or wouldn't do it.

COOPER: The contractors that bid on it either didn't know what they were getting into or never intended to fully execute that vision.

CHARLES: They were only willing to drop off truckloads of boxes at food bank warehouses. Cooper said he tried to negotiate to get some help distributing the food, but it didn't work.

COOPER: The contractors just said, do you want the food or not? And we desperately needed the food, so we just said, we'll cover the expenses.

CHARLES: He didn't have much leverage because the USDA's contractors can take that food and send it almost anywhere in the region, not necessarily to places that need it most.

COOPER: If you could find a willing nonprofit to take it, then the contractors were paid.

CHARLES: He says, some parts of the country got a lot of food. Others got very little. The USDA is now making some changes, trying to make sure that contractors help cover the cost of distributing the food. But some Democratic members of Congress have turned against food boxes altogether. Here's Congresswoman Marcia Fudge from Ohio at a hearing in July.


MARCIA FUDGE: Who's getting the food? Are they giving them rotten food, which is what I'm hearing in some of these instances? We have none of those answers. This is fraught with waste, fraud and abuse.

CHARLES: There's a better way to go, she says. Put more money into SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which delivers benefits electronically and lets people buy the food they need at grocery stores. Most independent observers agree that's much more efficient than trying to deliver food boxes.

Dan Charles, NPR News.


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