A $3bn federal programme designed to get food from farmers to hungry Americans during the coronavirus pandemic is being criticised by charitable groups for neglecting New York and other north-eastern US states hit hard by the outbreak.
Of the $1.2bn awarded by the US Department of Agriculture so far, only $54m, or less than 5 per cent, has gone to food distributors serving its north-eastern region — New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, seven states that together represent roughly a tenth of the US population.
The distribution of the aid has raised questions of political fairness, since none of the states voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. It also follows allegations that companies without proper qualifications were given contracts in the “Farmers to Families Food Box Program.”
Kate Leone, the chief government relations officer at Feeding America, the largest US hunger relief organisation with 200 food banks, said there were “a lot fewer” distributors participating in some regions, “which obviously results in fewer options and less product”.
In New York, the US centre of the pandemic with more than 23,000 deaths, one food bank executive described the “Farmers to Families” effort as “the worst, most poorly structured programme I’ve ever seen”.
“It’s an absolute disaster — we have to go begging for foods,” said the executive, who asked for anonymity to speak about the programme. “You can’t look at the list of allocations and not feel it’s politically motivated.”
$1.2bn the amount awarded so far in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program
Another New York food bank executive speaking on the condition of anonymity added: “It’s just chaos. They would have been better off to fill dump trucks with cash and just dump them off at farms. That would have been more productive.”
In an interview, Greg Ibach, the under-secretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programmes, said the department “didn’t get very many proposals from the north-east part of the United States” and was “very confident” in its process for selecting distributors.
He said companies taking part in the programme had demonstrated their ability through “past commercial experience, through their business ethics or integrity programmes” and their “financial capacity to perform”.
“While some of these groups and organisations are fairly new to the USDA contractor list that doesn’t mean that they are any less able to perform than some of our larger and more traditional partners,” Mr Ibach said.
“Farmers to Families” was meant to be a win-win solution for farmers, who have been dealing with surplus supply and declining numbers of buyers during the pandemic, and food banks, which have seen soaring demand as unemployment rises. To speed the delivery of food, distributors were selected to place boxes of pre-packed supplies directly into car boots.
Rolled out at a White House news conference attended by Mr Trump, the effort has also been championed by the president’s daughter Ivanka, who helped to kick off the programme with a visit to a Maryland food distributor and a social media campaign.
Prospective applicants were given a week to apply. About 550 did, while slightly fewer than 200 were approved. Among those shut out were Sysco and US Foods, national distributors who were mentioned by Sonny Perdue, the US agriculture secretary, during the rollout of the effort.
The programme’s biggest contract — $147m — went to Dallas-based Borden Dairy, which filed for bankruptcy in January, while $14.7m went to a business owned by a Naples, Florida, supporter of Mr Trump who has suggested “globalists” have created hysteria over Covid-19.
Other recipients included a San Antonio-based wedding planner called Cre8ad8 (“Create A Date”), which received a $39.1m contract.
Michael Guerra, chief development officer of the San Antonio Food Bank, questioned Cre8ad8’s selection, saying his group had agreed to receive 80 truckloads of food from the company, only to discover it lacked trucks with lift gates. That meant his food bank would be unable to bring the boxes from truck to trunk as the programme advertises.
“The [San Antonio] Food Bank is going to have to go rent trucks, find extra drivers and make extra payments to do [the food drop-off] in a way that was supposed to be done by USDA and their distributors,” he said, adding that if the distributor had been paid to provide such services, they “should be giving back some of that money”.
Greg Palomino, Cre8ad8’s owner, said the company was focused on completing the order despite its lack of experience. “The USDA believes in our capabilities and mission,” he said by email. “Our great team is focused on doing everything possible to get this done.”
Mr Ibach of the USDA said: “If we hear from recipients that they’re not receiving the services that we had described as part of the performance of the programme, we will check into that.”