BY GOSIA WOZNIACKA, CIVIL EATS
Every time Lula Cooley dropped off food boxes at Black churches or on the doorsteps of low-income senior citizens in Laurel, Mississippi, she was met with jubilation.
“’Acorn squash, sweet corn, green peas, watermelon! Thank you, Jesus!’ They just went on and on,” said Cooley, who is retired and works as the city’s senior center coordinator. “I cannot express what these food boxes meant to so many people.”
The boxes—part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farmers to Families Food Box program—came overflowing with produce grown by small-scale, Black-owned farms in the South. And they were delivered to Laurel by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a group that represents Black farmers, landowners, and their cooperatives.
This summer, the Federation supplied 19,000 boxes over a three-and-a-half month period to 20 nonprofit organizations, churches, and community groups, which distributed them across Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. The boxes were handed out in places like Laurel, a town of 18,000 people whose population is 60 percent Black and where one-third of residents live under the poverty line and typically can’t afford to buy such fresh produce, said Cooley.
And although the program lifted up Black farmers battered by COVID-19 closures, reached historically underserved food-insecure communities, engaged scores of volunteers, and created two dozen jobs, the Federation’s food box contract has not been renewed. Other small growers, including World Farmers, refugee farmers organization in Massachusetts, across the U.S. say they were also snubbed by the USDA over the past three months, despite successfully fulfilling their earlier contracts.
Instead, the agency awarded new contracts to large suppliers—giant food distributors such as Sysco. The move left growers with unsold crops and communities in the rural South and other areas hard-hit by the pandemic with diminished access to produce.
“When we no longer had a contract [from USDA] it wasn’t like [the Black farmers] got a call from one of these other suppliers. They were just left out. There was a big void that was left,” said Cornelius Blanding, the Federation’s executive director.
Despite challenges, program helps farmers, families
Launched in May under the USDA’s $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, Farmers to Families was meant to help farmers, whose markets were upended by the pandemic, and funnel unsold produce and dairy to the neediest Americans.
The program was authorized to spend $3 billion in April and was expanded by another $1 billion at the end of summer. At the end of October, just before the election, the USDA announced it would add another $500 million in funding to continue Farmers to Families through December.
Through four rounds of contracts, the program has to date delivered more than 110 million food boxes. As the cornerstone of the Trump administration’s pandemic hunger relief, it has been much touted by government officials, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has called it “a miracle.”
Yet Farmers to Families has been plagued with challenges. When it launched in May, industry leaders accused the USDA of giving lucrative contracts to companies with little experience of working with farmers or storing and distributing perishable goods.
Complaints about geographic distribution gaps (some parts of the country not getting enough boxes, others getting too many), delays, and inflated payments to some contractors have also surfaced. The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis is leading an investigation into the program.
In October, the USDA again drew ire when it mandated that a self-promoting letter signed by President Trump be included, both in English and Spanish, in the food-aid boxes. Many nonprofits that distributed the boxes decided to remove the letters due to worries that they would be seen as political activity just weeks before the election.
Despite such issues, organizations around the country have praised the program for feeding Americans at a time when food insecurity is skyrocketing in the U.S.
In the case of the Federation, the contract made it possible to pay fair-market prices for the more than half-million pounds of produce it purchased from 35 Black farmers—a boon given that the vast majority of farmers and landowners surveyed by the organization have seen their markets disappear due to the pandemic.
The support was badly needed, since small-scale Black farms typically operate within razor-thin margins, with 80 percent making less than $50,000 annually farming, Blanding said. And because they had crops already in the ground when the pandemic hit, the food box program not only gave them a source of income but also helped avoid significant financial loss.
“Without this [program], I don’t know where they would have gone. I can’t even imagine it,” Blanding said.
For Ben Burkett, a member of the Indian Springs Farms Association, a Mississippi vegetable marketing cooperative that’s a member of the Federation, the food box program was a godsend: Through it, the co-op’s members were able to sell the crops they had already planted for New Orleans restaurants and food service establishments, which shuttered when COVID-19 hit.
“This program stepped in just in time,” said Burkett. “And it was a blessing on both sides.”
The co-op’s members, who are all Black farmers, delivered about 11,000 boxes between May and August. The produce was a high-quality, colorful range of fruits and vegetables, said Burkett, and was delivered to families the day after it was picked. Such a feat was possible on a grand scale, Burkett said, because of an incredible upswelling of community support.
“Some people just came to volunteer, others we were able to pay for their work,” added the farmer. “It brought the community together.”
It all seemed like a grand success. So, the Federation and its farmers were surprised when then USDA rejected its application for the third round of Farmers to Families. The sting was especially severe given the long history of discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA. And they weren’t alone; other small farmers were also caught off guard by the lack of new contracts, and some were stuck with unharvested crops they had planted for the boxes.
A USDA spokesperson told Civil Eats by email that the agency modified the program after the first two rounds “to address feedback from nonprofit organizations that there was not adequate distribution of all different types of food boxes.” As a result, vendors had to bid for new contracts. They are now required to provide “combination boxes” (a mix of meat, dairy, and produce), identify their community partners and “last mile delivery” arrangements (in response to previous criticism about lack of such services), and gear their distribution to so-called “opportunity zones.”
Due to the shift, the contracts went exclusively to a small number of large national food distributors. At least half of the initial contracts were not renewed in the fall, and that number has been whittled down even more in the final months of the program.
For Burkett’s co-op, the loss of the contract meant a slew of surplus crops with no customers. And while restaurants had started reopening, most are only operating at one-third of their typical capacity, he said.
Now, says Burkett, “the food service companies don’t put much produce in their boxes.” His co-op is hopeful it can get another contract, if the program continues—but the farmers must make alternative plans for now. And without a sense of where he can sell next year’s crops, he doesn’t know what to plant.
“The USDA could have reserved a small portion of the contracts for grassroots cooperative groups, as a way to help low-income and people of color small family farmers, continue to benefit from this USDA program. Statutory support for reservation of a portion of USDA funds exists in the 2018 Farm Bill, but Secretary Purdue ignored these provisions,” said John Zippert, Chair of the Rural Coalition.
Communities Left Without Food
The changes to the food box program have also led to chaos and hardship for many of the organizations on the receiving end, according to interviews by Civil Eats and several complaints filed by lawmakers. (And one of the largest recipients is alleged to have redirected $3 million to its own nonprofit despite a lack of track record in delivering food to people in need, House Democrats have alleged.)
The USDA acknowledged that while some nonprofits that did not receive boxes in the first two rounds received them in the third round, others received fewer boxes or none at all.
But none of the groups previously served by the farmers affiliated with the Federation are currently participating in the program, and that means thousands of families in the South are lacking access to food.
The Federation has intimate knowledge of the Black community in the South and the local groups and community organizers who serve it. As a result, its boxes reached people who “are usually not on anyone’s radar,” said Chawnn Redden, the Federation’s regional marketing coordinator. “We sought out where the real need was, as opposed to just taking the easy route and giving it out to the nearest food bank,” she added.
Limited Model Program Continues
Knowing the program had been a lifesaver to both farmers and hungry families, the Federation is working to build off of the USDA model and continue providing its own food boxes. The organization has started using private funding to pay member farmers for their produce and continue to send food boxes to its partners.
But the Federation’s private efforts have only been able to provide a fraction of the previous amount of produce, said Redden.
“[The shift] dramatically reduced what we could purchase from farmers who had hopes they would be participating through the end of the year,” she said.
Moving forward, Blanding says that providing families with a box of raw ingredients direct from farmers is an approach that makes sense with or without the pandemic.
“It’s a model to build off for providing food during disasters, as well as something that could be extended as part of the social programs of our country,” he said.
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