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A look at the food box future

In this hyper-political era, politics seem to affect everything, and the USDA Farmers to Families food box program is no different.

It has been touted as a rousing success by the Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and the Trump administration, and it was been criticized by Democrats in Congress for being wasteful, unfocused and mismanaged.

The participating companies we’ve talked to have said it’s been a wonderful experience for them and the non-profits they’ve delivered to, but there have also been some who have been disappointed with the contract process.

While we thought it would go away at the end of 2020, it’s back in 2021 in a big way.

USDA reports 132.7 million food boxes have been invoiced through Jan. 7, and it announced earlier this week that through the recent COVID legislation passed in December, USDA will purchase another $1.5 billion worth of food boxes through the end of April.

Mollie Van Lieu, Senior Director, Nutrition Policy for the United Fresh Produce Association BB #:145458, said United Fresh has been lobbying for the program to continue, but she found out about the extension when USDA announced it to everyone.

Mollie Van Lieu

She said she’s heard positive feedback from members, as it’s open to the 240 companies previously approved through the Basic Ordering Agreement system. USDA says it will send solicitations by today and announce the awards by Jan. 19.

Van Lieu said USDA hasn’t indicated what its priority will be with contracts, and although it never explained any changes, it clearly favored lower cost boxes in Rounds 3 and 4.

There are a few changes, such as allowing pre-cooked seafood to be included and an expansion of the types of cheeses that may be packed.

Van Lieu said fresh domestic produce is still an important part of the program, but she didn’t believe produce-only boxes will be allowed.

As for the politics of the food box, she said it’s a good sign that the incoming Biden administration hasn’t indicated any lack of support.

“We are working with members and nonprofits to improve and make permanent the program and help avoid the politics of it,” she said.

For instance, she doesn’t believe this round will include a letter from President Trump.

Many Democrats favor hunger investment in the SNAP program instead of food boxes, but Van Lieu said United Fresh views that as a separate effort from food boxes, noting that SNAP benefits did get a raise in the same COVID relief package.

Food boxes are “a more direct correlation to purchases of fruits and vegetables to farmers,” she said. “We don’t have the data to support that a 15 percent increase in SNAP funding would correlate” to that amount of purchases for American farmers.

As for the future of the program, she thinks there’s a chance it will continue in 2021 under the Biden USDA, but it may change from boxes to some other packaging, such as bags.

“As we transition out of the pandemic, we still see the need for produce in food banks,” she said.

Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services