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Ending the food box program was the right move

Ending the food box program was the right move
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At a recent House hearing, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackTom VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE said that USDA would terminate the Farmers to Family Food Box program. The announcement provoked an outcry from proponents such as the Farm Bureau who had supported the popular program. But despite the program's popularity among some, USDA made the right decision.

The food box program was created during the early phase of the pandemic when processing bottlenecks caused by lockdowns and COVID-19 outbreaks had upended the food distribution program in the U.S. and put millions out of work. The idea of the Food Box program was to purchase food from farmers who were having trouble marketing their produce, dairy products and other perishable items to needy families affected by the pandemic. As of March 2021, the food box program has delivered almost 150 million boxes of food to approximately 11,000 nonprofit organizations. Between $4.5 and $6 billion has been spent on the program since it went into effect last May.

Trying to achieve multiple goals with the same program often leads to inefficient and costly outcomes and the food box program was no exception. First, the food box program duplicated efforts of a long standing USDA program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP). It contracted with new vendors, many of which had no experience in running food distribution programs. Many counties were unserved because of distribution issues, including many rural counties. Moreover, distribution costs were often absorbed by food pantries, food banks and other nonprofits that were already struggling to meet the increased demand for food caused by the pandemic.

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And the program was costly. As outlined in a recent Harvard study, while the cost of an average food box was around $30, the unit costs varied widely with some boxes costing as high as $200. Contents of the boxes varied from week to week so those picking up the boxes did not always know what they were getting from week to week. So-called combo boxes included dairy products and fruits and vegetables, which often necessitated unpacking and sorting boxes at food banks. There were food safety challenges as well as boxes of meat and dairy sometimes went without refrigeration  for extended periods at distribution sites.  

Some farmers were undoubtedly helped by the Famers to Families Food Box program, but by mid-summer most farm prices had recovered and by the fall were above pre-pandemic levels. Food box purchases distorted prices by concentrating purchases among a few selected items like cheese. Even the dairy industry, one of the primary beneficiaries of the program, had advocated changes to the program to provide a better mix of dairy products to avoid market distortions.   

Because of the slow recovery and lingering impacts of the pandemic, emergency food demand remains high. Feeding America reports a 55 percent increase in the number of people seeking help from food banks during the pandemic. Providing assistance to food banks and food pantries to meet those demands is a more cost-effective way of meeting emergency food assistance needs than through inefficient programs such as the food box program. It is far better for USDA to use its existing food distribution programs like EFAP that have a long history of providing funding for food bank purchases.

Emergency food programs like EFAP help supplement food needs, but the primary means of addressing of food security needs should be through existing programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the child nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, Summer Food Service Program and After-School Snacks and Suppers. USDA recently announced that it would extend benefits of SNAP by $1 billion per month and expand outreach efforts under WIC. Those efforts target some of the poorest households who have the least ability to absorb the economic shocks brought about by COVID-19.  

Addressing food needs should be a priority and those efforts should not be undermined by programs that seek to achieve multiple goals, but at a far higher price. USDA should be applauded for canceling the Farmers to Families Food Box program and focusing efforts on meeting the food needs of needy families.

Joseph Glauber is a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former Chief Economist, USDA.