The Farmers to Families Food Box program, which has provided millions of boxes of nutritious food to people throughout the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, will close at the end of next month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has indicated.

The Barron County Salvation Army, one of many groups which have been involved in distributing boxes through the program, organized its first pick-up event at the end of March. The event distributed just over 1,300 boxes, said Angela Moulton, fundraising and media manager for the Salvation Army in Barron, Polk, St. Croix and Burnett counties.

“The first event went really well,” Moulton said, so they offered to organize another event, which came to fruition on April 24.

They’re scheduled to host another pick-up day for the community on May 22, Moulton said.

But with the fifth round of the program, which began in January, set to be the final one, it appears the Barron County Salvation Army’s May distribution event is likely to be their last under the Farmers to Families program.

Overall, the Farmers to Families Food Box program, which first saw contracts issued in May 2020, has distributed over 160 million boxes of fresh produce, milk, other dairy products and cooked meats, according to the most recent USDA data.

The food box program was something of a lifeline for many people during a difficult year.

For agricultural producers, the program offered an outlet for their goods in a time where the COVID-19 pandemic had upended supply chain.

For communities, the food boxes provided support for struggling individuals and families. This program has been a “less intimidating” option for those in need to take advantage of, Moulton said, noting that the program was available with no income requirements and events were structured so participants could just drive through to obtain a box.

After the first event, Moulton said she received some “very thankful” phone calls from recipients of the food boxes. Volunteers who helped distribute the food also provided her with positive feedback.

Based on feedback from the first event, Moulton said she “absolutely” had a positive impression of the food box program and was sad that the program was ending.

To some, the decision to cancel the program seemed abrupt.

In a statement, Zippy Duvall, American Farm Bureau Federation president, said, “AFBF was surprised to learn of Secretary (of Agriculture Tom) Vilsack’s decision to end the Farmers to Families Food Box program. The pandemic had a devastating effect on farmers, ranchers and families across the country when schools, cafeterias and restaurants shut down. More than 150 million food boxes were produced and helped America’s families suffering from the hardships caused by COVID-19. The need is still there.”

But the food box program hasn’t been without criticism, leaving others less surprised following the announcement of the program’s cancellation.

“While the Farmers to Families Food Box program was very helpful last year in responding quickly to both last year’s food supply chain disruptions and the dramatic rise in the number of Americans experiencing food insecurity, it also had its challenges. That’s why we are not surprised by the decision to move beyond the food box program, and in fact, expected it,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, in a statement.

During an April 14 U.S. House Committee on Appropriations agriculture subcommittee hearing, Vilsack said the program as it stood had “a lot of problems.”

“There was a significant difference of administrative costs; in some cases people were charged a tremendous amount just to fill the boxes,” Vilsack said. “There was an 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 held about the program).”

Vilsack said that some food banks have also expressed concerns and issues with the program.

During the course of the program, other concerns included impacts on volatility in the markets, lack of transparency about the vendor selection process and claims that the program was used to promote politics prior to last November’s election.

While the Farmers to Families Food Box program is ending, the USDA still plans to address the problem of food insecurity using different strategies. The USDA will be focusing on its other established distribution channels to get food where it’s needed, according to Vilsack.

“We’re going to try to take what we’ve learned at the best of that (food box) program and incorporate it into our traditional regular programs, which are very efficient in terms of food distribution,” Vilsack said. “So that way I think you get the best of both worlds. You get product being used, product being available to people, ... but you get it through a very efficient and effective delivery mechanism that is accountable.”

The switch in distribution channels includes utilizing The Emergency Food Assistance Program, a long-standing USDA initiative.

“Our theory is that we create opportunities through the TEFAP program, through what exists with our food banks and our food pantry system, which is incredibly efficient and incredibly effective at getting resources out to folks. So there’s going to be a continuation. We just announced a produce box that will be funneled through that system. We’ve got the Dairy Donation Program that we’re going to set up as well to help the dairy industry,” Vilsack said.

The produce box program, made possible under pandemic assistance funding for TEFAP, was announced by the USDA on April 9. According to the agency’s pre-solicitation announcement, the pre-packed boxes will include 3-5 pounds of vegetables, 3-5 pounds of fruit and at least two locally grown fruit or vegetable items. If locally grown produce is unavailable, an additional fruit and vegetable are to be added to meet the minimum package weight range of 10-12 pounds.

Funding for that program is for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The USDA also announced April 13 that it will soon implement the Dairy Donation Program established under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, which was passed at the end of last year.

The new program aims to “facilitate the timely donation of dairy products to nonprofit organizations who distribute food to persons in need and prevent and minimize food waste,” according to a USDA notice.

While the program has yet to be finalized, retroactive reimbursements for donations under the program will be allowed, according to the USDA, which has provided advance notice of the program’s minimum provisions in order to encourage donations by dairy processors and cooperatives during the spring season.

For more information on the fresh produce and dairy donation programs or how to participate, see notices for the initiatives at www.ams.usda.gov/notices.

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