The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, February 24, 2021 1:00 am

Fate of food boxes up in air

Could be rare example of Trump program retained

SCOTT McFETRIDGE | Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa – As the Biden administration sets up shop, many policies initiated by its hard-right predecessor are being targeted for extinction. But agricultural groups and anti-hunger organizations are fighting to keep one they've come to depend on, which channels food that might otherwise be plowed under to people reeling under the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture began the Farmers to Families Food Box program in April. Many people were shocked to see farmers destroy crops because restaurant and institutions abruptly canceled orders because of the virus, even as food banks were crushed by demand from people suddenly out of work.

The USDA hurriedly paid about $3 billion to contractors who within weeks worked with food banks to begin handing out boxes filled with 20 pounds of produce to motorists who queued up in lines that would snake through stadium parking lots and down suburban streets. Photos of those lines became among the most emblematic images of the suffering inflicted by the virus.

The food boxes proved well suited to quickly help people who were suddenly in need, compared to the much larger food stamp program, which has eligibility requirements and paperwork. Officials say it offers lessons for how to respond to significant disruptions in the future.

After getting the program started, the USDA under former President Donald Trump approved four more phases costing another $3 billion. After the final round ends in April, the USDA will reassess the program.

If the USDA extends it, the program will be a rare example of the new administration retaining rather than dismantling a Trump initiative, as Biden is seeking to do on issues ranging from immigration to health care.

Unlike some other programs, the food box initiative was widely praised from the start, despite early concerns about contractors' ability to handle the job.

The effort has delivered 136.5 million food boxes, which initially contained only fresh produce but later also included meat, milk and now fish. Nearly a year later, thousands of people still line up for the boxes.

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