The first round of USDA food box contracts is finished. The program is off to a rocky start.

The Department of Agriculture is 10 million boxes and 25 percent short of its forecasted delivery.

In mid-April, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a novel plan to connect struggling farmers directly with families dealing with virus-related loss of income: The aptly named Farmers to Families Food Box program would pay distributors to purchase produce, dairy, and meat; package the food into boxes; and deliver those boxes to churches, schools, and food banks. The agency even released a handy infographic illustrating the concept. 

On paper, the idea made sense. Without restaurant dining, suppliers were dealing with a sudden loss of business and a glut of ripening produce. At the same time, food pantries were seeing record demand, and many people were avoiding the grocery store for fear of contracting Covid-19. The program appeared to have enthusiastic support from the Trump administration: Ivanka Trump attended its launch in Maryland, and in May the president appeared at a press conference flanked by tables laden with food box displays. With each milestone, USDA sent out enthusiastic press releases: five million food boxes distributed, then 20 million. 

Yet for all its pomp and circumstance, the food box program fell more than 10 million deliveries shy of its goal. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue anticipated 40 million boxes would be distributed by the end of June; according to a counter on the agency’s home page, 27.5 million boxes were delivered as of July 1. The discrepancy between the projected boxes and the delivered boxes may be a result of under-fulfilled contracts, but the agency has not offered an explanation. And though USDA promised it would release the list of approved contractors for the second round of the program before the end of June, it had yet to do so as of press time on Wednesday. 

USDA food box program diagram June 2020

It hasn’t quite worked out like this.

USDA

The selection of contractors for the food box program has also proven a sticking point. After the agency released a list of distributors totaling $1.2 billion in contracts for a delivery period running from mid-May to the end of June, journalists and watchdogs noted many apparent inconsistencies. One distributor, an event planner in San Antonio which won a $39 million contract, had made many false claims on its website and LinkedIn page, the San Antonio Express-News reported. Other high-value contracts went to a company that runs airport kiosks, and to one that advertised itself as a financial services provider prior to the start of its contract. The agency soon canceled a $40 million contract with California Avocados Direct, a small West Coast distributor who typically reported $1 million to $2 million in annual revenue. Industry groups voiced their frustration, noting that well-established distributors seemed to have been passed over in favor of inexperienced suppliers. 

Other aspects of the distributor selection process were even more perplexing. No distributors from Maine were selected, for instance. Some contractors failed to deliver their boxes directly to distribution points, forcing food banks to incur tens of thousands of dollars in last-mile delivery costs. And then there were questions about the cost of the food: Despite requests from lawmakers, the agency has not publicly released detailed information about the prices it has paid for the food boxes. Reporting from The Counter found that, in some cases, the agency was paying well above retail prices for gallons of milk distributed in the boxes. 

With the second round of contracts, the agency had the opportunity to correct any errors in its distributor-selection process. By some measurements, it appears to have done so: In mid-June, USDA issued a press release announcing that it had extended food box contracts for “select vendors” totaling $1.16 billion for the period beginning July 1 and ending on August 31. Maine lawmakers announced their state had received $1.35 million in contracts. Local news reports suggest some distributors won renewals. Yet despite promising to release the full list of new contractors and award amounts prior to the start of the new contract period, the agency had not done so by press time Wednesday. A spokesperson for the agency said the updated list of vendors is being finalized and that it will be available online “as soon as it is ready.”

It remains to be seen whether the food box program is more efficient for purchasing groceries than SNAP.

Advocates have argued that the food boxes—essentially a rebranded version of an earlier rejected “harvest box” proposal to replace SNAP benefits with pre-packaged pantry items—represent a regressive attempt to reinvent the wheel, forcing people to wait in long lines reminiscent of Depression-era food handouts, in full view of their neighbors and in potentially dangerous proximity to other people. It remains to be seen whether the food box program is more efficient for purchasing groceries than SNAP, the nation’s largest food assistance program that operates by distributing prepaid debit cards. Either way, lawmakers continue to argue for an increase in SNAP benefits to blunt the financial impact of the ongoing pandemic. 

Senate negotiations on the next round of relief are scheduled to begin later this month. 

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter.