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Chair Fudge Opening Statement at Hearing on Overview of Farmers to Families Food Box Program

Washington, July 21, 2020

WASHINGTON- House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Chair Marcia Fudge of Ohio delivered the following statement at today's subcommittee hearing on the overview of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

[As Prepared for Delivery]

“Good afternoon and thank you for joining us today for the House Agriculture Committee’s first hybrid hearing during this unprecedented time in our nation’s recent history. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it an economic toll that has left millions of Americans jobless and without the basic income needed to purchase food for their families. More than 40 million Americans have applied for unemployment as a result of pandemic-related job losses. At one point, 40 percent of Americans making less than $40,000 a year lost their jobs. In my state of Ohio, SNAP caseloads increased by 21 percent from February to May. According to Feeding America, which represents 200 food banks across the nation, demand has increased an average of 70 percent. 

“Many have read the heartbreaking stories about the thousands of people across the country who lined up for miles to receive food, many of them people who have never experienced visiting a food bank. We also heard stories about milk dumping and backups along the hog and poultry supply chains, forcing farmers to make excruciatingly difficult choices.

“Congress passed several bipartisan pieces of legislation that were signed into law and helped expand aid to distressed farmers, rural businesses, and small towns, and provided food assistance for vulnerable children and families. We can all agree that additional help was—and is still—needed to assist our farmers, businesses, and vulnerable people experiencing hardship as covid-19 cases continue to rise, and the economic damage that comes with that.

“Today’s hearing is focused on the Administration’s $3 billion program intended to quickly deliver fresh food to those in need. On April 17, 2020, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the creation of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, known as CFAP, to provide $19 billion in financial relief to farmers, ranchers, and consumers. This includes $16 billion in direct payments to producers impacted by the drop in commodity prices and the disruption in food supply chains.  It also includes the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which provides $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat product purchases for distribution through food banks and other non-profit organizations.

“However, despite some reports of non-profits successfully receiving and delivering food to people in need, including in my district, the effort is clearly not working for everyone. Since the Farmers to Families Food Box Program was announced on April 17, several issues have been raised regarding the program’s implementation and delivery.

“It has been broadly reported that the program fell well short of its initial commitment of providing 40 million boxes of food to food banks, churches, and other nonprofit organizations by the end of June 2020. We’ve seen reports of companies awarded contracts with little-to-no experience in the timely sourcing and distribution of food, including nearly $40 million to a Texas wedding planner. That contractor committed to providing 750,000 boxes of food.  To date, it has distributed fewer than a third of that promise. Our Ranking Member frequently complains about what he sees as waste, fraud and abuse in our anti-hunger programs, but I’d like to know if he’s concerned about this egregious failure in his own backyard.

“Some awardees have no prior experience working with food banks or even wholesale food distribution. Other contract recipients have reportedly spent money on lobbying and PR instead of diverting that money into more food for the hungry. We’ve heard about inconsistencies in the coordination between distributors and nonprofit on the amount of food a nonprofit can handle, resulting in food spoiling in 90-degree weather. We’ve heard from food banks, which have historically enjoyed a good working relationship with USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, that there are no clear points of contact within the Agricultural Marketing Service to submit complaints or ask questions.

“This committee requested and to date, has not yet received any information on how USDA and distributors are tracking which non-profits are receiving food boxes. USDA has also failed to provide sufficient rationale for how it determined regional food distribution, such that Puerto Rico is in the same region as Pennsylvania and the Virgin Islands in the same region as Maine.  Nor has USDA responded to public criticism by publishing information on how they are ensuring only legitimate and experienced non-profits participate in the program.

“In my district in Cleveland, Ohio, our food banks and nonprofits have the benefit of working a seasoned distributer that has served local emergency food providers for over 100 years. However, if the stated mission of the Families to Food Box Program is not being accomplished everywhere --either through misspent funds, mismanagement or inconsistent operations-- then this program is creating hardships instead of relieving them.

“It is clear greater transparency and oversight are needed to shed light on a program designed in the dark by USDA, outside of the Farm Bill, in the absence of input from Congress, or experienced agriculture stakeholders and emergency food providers.  A program intended to feed the hungry that fails to operate consistently and equitably for all people across this nation, is unacceptable. That is not good government and only lends itself to fraud, waste, and abuse of taxpayer dollars.

“Today’s hearing is only the beginning.  I intend to closely review this program to ensure that it meets its intended policy goals and operates efficiently for all those depending on its promised success.”
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