Washington cleanup continues as Biden administration cans troubled Trump food program

Image: USDA

You’re probably already doing it every morning when you wake up for a dozen reasons, but if you’re looking for another cause to be thankful that Donald Trump has been exiled to his little mini-Xanadu in south Florida, here’s a good one.

As reporter H. Claire Brown reports for The Counter (an up and coming news site for all things related to food and food policy), the Biden administration has dumped another flawed — and quite possibly corrupt — Trump administration scheme to supplant a basic public service with a quasi-private, half-baked program run in part by amateurs.

The program was called the “Farmers to Families Food Box program,” and like a lot of Trump-era schemes, it undoubtedly sounded better when pitched by a salesman in a five-minute meeting with a Trump appointee or family member than it turned out in the real world. The idea was that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would help respond to the pandemic by buying surplus farm food, boxing it up and delivering it to families in need. As Brown reports, however, the program was plagued with problems from the start:

But flaws in the program’s implementation became evident almost immediately: USDA chose inexperienced distributors—including a catering company and a financial services provider now under investigation—to launch the box program. Food pantries soon began complaining that deliveries weren’t arriving, that the produce arrived in poor condition, and that the boxes themselves were falling apart. Some of our earliest reporting found that USDA was paying well above retail price for milk distributed through the program. Many argued that boosting SNAP benefits or providing other forms of direct cash assistance for people in need of food may have been far more efficient than the box deliveries.

Our reporting later revealed bigger problems with the food box program: In the first round of distribution, more than 1,000 counties were left out. Food pantries reported incurring tens of thousands of dollars in extra delivery costs after the program failed to follow through on the agency’s truck to trunk promise. Religious organizations were distributing the boxes with a side of pro-church messaging. And the boxes were really, really expensive: In Puerto Rico, for instance, one distributor was charging USDA $100 per box—a price more than triple what a local farmer said a similar amount of local produce would cost.

In other words, it was the classic Trump scam: a shallow, ill-conceived and poorly executed plan to replace a basic public service — food assistance — with a convoluted replacement plan that would be easy pickings for profiteers and proselytizers.

Brown goes on to report that new Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack told a congressional hearing yesterday that “There was a significant difference of administrative costs and in some cases people were [paid] a tremendous amount just to fill the boxes. There was inadequate accounting of where the boxes were actually delivered. There was a lot of food waste and loss that we uncovered as a result of listening sessions.”

None of this, of course, is to say that there weren’t many good and well-meaning people involved with the program or that it didn’t deliver some help to some folks in need. What the failure does remind us, however, is that there are many things our government already does well (and could do a lot more of) if know-it-all politicians and their uninformed lackeys and hangers on just got out of the way and provided adequate funding to the professionals we’ve already hired and trained to provide core public services.

Click here to read Brown’s story.

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