November 29, 2021

Review of Pandemic Food Box Expenditures Results Released

Review of Pandemic Food Box Expenditures Results Released  

By: Sydney Sheffield 

Late last year, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis opened an investigation into the Trump Era United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pandemic Food Assistance Program, Farmers to Families Food Box Program, indicating negligence and fraud. The Subcommittee released their findings and detailed how the Trump Administration misused the taxpayer $6 billion. 

The government hired hundreds of private companies last spring to buy food no longer needed by restaurants, schools, and cruise ships, and transport it to overwhelmed food banks. The program faced several problems such as spilled and spoiled food, high costs, and uneven distribution nationwide. The Farmers to Families Food Box Program ended in May 2021 by President Biden. There was also speculation about the price some companies were charging the USDA. 

"There was an unequal cost associated with the distribution and filling of these boxes. Some people made a significant percentage from filling the boxes," current USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on a call with reporters.

In August 2020, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis sent a letter to the USDA  Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, seeking documents on the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a program intended to assist Americans affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chairman on the Select Subcommittee, Representative James E. Clyburn (D-SC), requested documents related to the contractor’s performance, prices paid by USDA, and audits performed in connection with the program. After a year-long investigation, the subcommittee’s Staff Report has been published. 

"The significant mismanagement of the Food Box Program illuminated by this report is yet another example of the previous Administration's failure to meet the needs of the American people as the coronavirus spread across the country,” said Chairman Clyburn. “As we work to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and prepare for future emergencies, we must heed this report's lessons to prevent more instances of fraud and abuse and ensure that future relief efforts are more effective, efficient, and equitable." 

The report found that the Administration did not sufficiently assess contractor applications or denote concerns on their bid proposals. The subcommittee felt that the contractors chosen were poorly equipped to handle the task at hand. For example, $40 million was given to a consulting firm that wrote in response to past performance references “I don’t have any” and $39.1 million was given to an event marketing company with no previous food distribution experience. 

Due to a lack of oversight by the USDA, some contracts were able to profit substantially from the program. Profits between 10% to 25%, and for one contract, up to 50% markups occurred on the amount that the companies originally paid for the food box contents. There was also no process in place to evaluate whether nonprofits receiving the boxes had the proper equipment to store and distribute the contents. For example, some food banks received commercially packaged food that was not suitable for single-family unit distribution. 

The Subcommittee concluded that future emergency response programs need to improve the design and implementation of food distribution programs to eliminate fraud, abuse, and waste. Check out the full report to read the Subcommittee’s detailed list of findings.