“Please take a moment to thank Jehovah”: Churches distributing USDA food boxes are blurring the boundaries between church and state

Farm to Family food boxes in front of the USDA building in Washington D.C. September 2020

Photos/USDA / iStock/FrankCangelosi / Graphic by Talia Moore

Religious groups distributing Covid hunger-relief boxes are praying with recipients, taping Bible verses onto flaps, and soliciting donations. Some of these practices may violate federal regulations.

In mid-June, Heather received a 20-pound box of produce from a local branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses on behalf of her grandmother, an active member of the church. It held potatoes, onions, apples, and a cauliflower—and came with an unexpected letter: “Dear Brothers and Sisters: We are certain that you agree that all praise and honor goes to our great God Jehovah for his abundant provisions to us!” it read. The letter went on to ask that recipients “keep this gift confidential,” and encouraged them to accept the boxes, even if they did not need the food.

The box was one of 100 million distributed so far as part of the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farmers to Families Food Box program, the Trump administration’s flagship Covid-19 hunger relief initiative intended to provide emergency food aid to families in need. 

The letter’s declaration that the boxes came from Jehovah—instead of taxpayers—represents a significant departure from standard operating procedure for federal food aid. So does its plea for confidentiality, which raised a red flag for Heather*, who suspected that Jehovah’s Witnesses were saving the boxes exclusively for its members. (*Heather is an inactive member of the group, and we’re withholding her last name at her request). Also odd: The suggestion that recipients accept the boxes regardless of need. According to USDA guidelines, distributors paid by the government to assemble the boxes were supposed to guarantee they would be given to “only needy people.” 

Jehovah's Witnesses Disaster Relief Committee letter about food relief boxes during Covid-19. September 2020

The letter regarding federal food aid comes from The Jehovah’s Witnesses Disaster Relief Committee. Request to keep the food supplies confidential raised concern for “Heather.”

Letter from source “Heather” / Graphic by Tricia Vuong

According to its packaging, the box was distributed by Travel Well Holdings, an airport kiosk company based in Santa Rosa, California, which in May received a $12-million contract to assemble and distribute the boxes as part of the program. (In a phone interview, Travel Well Holdings CEO Desiree Rodriguez said that the company was not aware that some of its boxes were being distributed alongside letters from Jehovah’s Witnesses.)

In a phone interview, Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, confirmed that a local branch had circulated the letter with some boxes during the program’s early weeks, but without authorization from higher-ups. “The wording here does not represent necessarily what we have directed to our disaster relief committees,” Hendriks said. When asked if the organization was distributing to Jehovah’s Witnesses only, Hendriks said that the organization also delivers food boxes to non-believers who attend bible study or services.

This blurring of lines between church and state when distributing the Farmers to Families food boxes is not unique to the Witnesses: The Counter found multiple instances in which churches promoted their own messages while distributing taxpayer-funded boxes, in potential violation of USDA guidelines. The issues range from relatively minor—like slapping church logos on each box—to more significant: apparently “saving” people at distribution sites, telling recipients the boxes are from God, and asking volunteers to pray “in person” for every single box recipient.

“That is unlawful…. People shouldn’t have to choose between going hungry and engaging in religious activity they don’t want.”

According to federal regulations, churches and other faith-based organizations are prohibited from mixing explicitly religious activities with federally funded food aid, “including activities that involve overt religious content such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization.” As a USDA program, the Farmers to Families Food Boxes are subject to these rules.

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Agency guidance issued in late 2016 pertaining to a separate USDA hunger relief program emphasized that any overlap between religious services and aid distribution is unacceptable. For example, prayer services must be separate in time and place from federally funded aid distribution; and while churches can put flyers out for recipients to pick up, they can’t attach them directly to food boxes. The Counter found evidence of both such incidents. For example, in Warner Robins, Georgia, the Eighth Day Church appears to have attached flyers to food boxes that read, “God is thinking about you,” and feature a Bible verse, according to multiple posts on its Instagram page. (Ironically, the Trump administration did insert letters from the President into many of the boxes, prompting some non-profits to worry they were violating their commitments to avoid political participation.) 

In response to a list of questions, USDA issued a statement reiterating that all food box distributors were required to adhere to the above federal guidelines. It also added that: “A non-profit faith-based organization participating in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program is permitted to express religious beliefs in the distribution of food boxes, as long as the activity does not disrupt the distribution of USDA benefits or make receipt of USDA benefits contingent on participation in religious activities or assent to religious beliefs.”

Though the agency’s statement leaves room for interpretation, some legal experts thought some of these instances crossed legal boundaries. “They are instances where it appears that benefits are being conditioned on engaging in religious activity,” said David Barkey, national religious freedom counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, referring to incidents presented by The Counter. “That is unlawful…. People shouldn’t have to choose between going hungry and engaging in religious activity they don’t want.”

Other legal experts we spoke with hedged a bit, saying that USDA’s positioning appears to tacitly permit churches to toe the line in their distribution efforts. “We’re coming close to crossing the line if we haven’t crossed it already,” said Chad Flanders, a professor of religion and law at Saint Louis University.

The food box initiative has played a central role in the Trump administration’s hunger relief efforts during the coronavirus pandemic. The premise is simple: Distributors purchase food from farmers, pack it into boxes, and deliver it to non-profits, including faith-based organizations, which pass it out. First launched in mid-May as a short-term fix to severely disrupted supply chains, the program has since gone through two rounds of distribution worth nearly $2.7 billion. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing: USDA has faced criticism for contracting with inexperienced and unlicensed companies, overpaying suppliers for mediocre food, and inequitably distributing boxes by region. Yet last month, President Trump approved another $1 billion in funding for a third round of boxes to be delivered from mid-September through October 31.

“I cringed when I saw the ‘free food.’ That’s just not the message. So many people get hurt when that happens.”

In the first two rounds of distribution, USDA placed few restrictions on the non-profits receiving the boxes. Food bank operators told us much of the program operated on an honor system: Non-profits were expected to deliver the food to people who needed it, and the onus was on them to ensure they were doing so safely and fairly. (The agency has strengthened food safety and eligibility requirements for contractors and recipients in the program’s third round, which began in mid-September.)

This isn’t how federal food aid is typically handed out. When San Antonio Food Bank CEO Eric Cooper partners with faith-based organizations to distribute food in Texas—a common occurrence, as he estimates churches and other religious organizations make up about 70 percent of the food bank’s distribution—they have to sign a contract promising that they’ll handle the food safely, that they won’t sell it, that they can demonstrate each person receiving food needs it, and that they’ll respect recipients’ civil rights by refraining from coupling food aid with any explicitly religious activities. If Cooper’s organization hears that a church is requiring recipients to attend a sermon or participate in a prayer, it sometimes conducts an audit to address the problem. 

Many of those guardrails seem to have fallen by the wayside with the Farmers to Families food boxes. The Counter identified several churches which advertised, simply, “free food,” available to anyone who asked for it. Come get a box, “even if you don’t need food,” a volunteer in Arizona said in a promotional video on Facebook. A USDA spokesperson pointed to a portion of the food box contract solicitation that read, in apparent contradiction of this claim: “Offeror must self-certify that nonprofits have capability to ensure that only needy people, or the food insecure population, will receive the food boxes through this program.”

“I cringed when I saw the ‘free food.’ That’s just not the message. So many people get hurt when that happens,” Cooper said. “What I believe is that this investment was to help those that were struggling. Help the farmers, help the industry partners, and help families in need. If the benefit went to someone else, then people were robbed of the nourishment.”

In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hendriks said the church’s suggestion that recipients accept a box regardless of need was meant to prevent members from downplaying any private struggles with food insecurity.

“We didn’t want to give them the choice of rejecting it because many would have just said, ‘Somebody else needs it more’,” he said.

In addition to prayer, some churches appear to be using their public-facing role distributing USDA food boxes to solicit donations.

Other churches inched even closer toward crossing the line between assisting the government in distributing food aid and using the events to promote their own views. Distributing boxes at Word of God Church in Oklahoma City, Brendon Laubhan said in an Instagram video that Revival America OKC volunteers were instructed to pray for every recipient, according to a video posted to Instagram. “We get free food from the government, and we’re giving it out, but the special thing is…we pray with every family that comes and gets food,” Laubhan said in an Instagram video. “We pray for them, we pray with them, we ask the Holy Spirit to come in their lives….We haven’t been turned down one time for prayer.” Laubhan did not respond to request for comment by press time.

Barkey said that such a blurring of boundaries puts food insecure recipients in a difficult position, in which they may be willing to temporarily consent to faith-based practices that they don’t typically partake in, in order to secure basic needs.

“If there’s religious activities occurring in the same parking lot, in the same time and space as the food distribution, I think that’s pretty coercive,” he said. “When somebody is saying, ‘What do you want me to pray for you?’…the bottom line is they shouldn’t be asking that question. They simply should be doing what other providers are doing, secular or religious, simply distributing the food.”

In addition to prayer, some churches appear to be using their public-facing role distributing USDA food boxes to solicit donations. 

“God has miraculously provided this food – FREE!” wrote Florida-based Church of Hope in an Instagram post announcing its plans to distribute 1,334 Farmers to Families boxes per week. Videos posted to the platform showed volunteers pressing stickers bearing the church logo onto boxes. “But it still costs us to rent the refrigerated trailer, to provide the diesel to keep the refrigeration going, and other items we need to make this all happen. We are asking for you to continue to go above and beyond by giving of your time, talent and treasure.”

The plea underscores an ongoing criticism of the program: While USDA contracts are supposed to cover all food box distribution costs, many food banks and other nonprofits have complained that they’re incurring significant, unexpected expenses related to storage and last-mile delivery. A spokesperson for Church of Hope said that volunteers at the food box distribution “offered prayer if they wanted it.” 

A screenshot of Heavenly Hope's Facebook showing a food box with a bible verse. September 2020

A screenshot of Heavenly Hope’s Facebook post showing a food box with bible verses.

Elsewhere, at least one church appears to have celebrated “salvations” at distribution sites. “Today we just gave out 2,000 boxes of food….We had five salvations, over two hundred people prayed for….Did y’all have fun?” asked a representative of California’s Victorville First Assembly of God, in another Instagram video. The church didn’t respond to a request for comment.

 In Missouri, Christian non-profit Heavenly Hope included a postcard featuring Bible verses with each of the 17,000 food boxes that it has delivered so far, according to the organization’s president Beth Giesler. “Our whole thing is that it’s not about the boxes, it’s about spreading God’s love,” Giesler said in a phone interview. Facebook posts show the verses taped to food box flaps. When asked about whether the organization knew it was potentially violating federal guidelines, Giesler said: “If [recipients] chose to read [the postcard], they chose to read it. If they don’t, they don’t.”

Taken on their own, some of these come just short of explicitly violating USDA’s guidelines—others may even cross the line. Taken together, however, they paint a picture of religious organizations across the country using taxpayer-funded hunger relief as an avenue to promote faith-based practices, particularly among families struggling with food insecurity. That is—if they’re reaching people based on need in the first place. Ultimately, it’s up to USDA to enforce its own rules and ensure that food boxes are being distributed equitably.

“If the USDA [knows] about this, they should frankly say, ‘Hey, guys, stop it,’” Flanders said. “If they don’t—if they condone it—then we have the further Constitutional problem of favoring religion and allowing religion to use government funds to proselytize.”

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.