Small growers say they were snubbed by the USDA, with contracts going to corporations like Sysco instead
This story was originally published on 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 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,” said Cornelius Blanding, the Federation’s executive director. “They were just left out. There was a big void that was left.”
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 because of an incredible upswelling of community support. “Some people just came to volunteer, others we were able to pay for their work,” Burkett said. “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.
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. (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. “USDA made painstaking efforts to ensure comprehensive coverage for the states, with the goal of covering every county in the country,” the spokesperson said.
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.”
The senior center in Laurel was one such example. The boxes that landed there were directed to hundreds of families. Cooley, the coordinator, ran food drives, worked with local pastors and community organizations, and drove to the homes of elders who were stuck at home. Reaching people by word of mouth and finding elderly men who seldom ask for help was especially important, Cooley said, and it’s something that traditional food banks rarely do. “Some people have a lot of pride, but when they had a chance to get the food, they would reach out to me,” she said.
Since the Federation’s contract ended, area churches have continued giving limited assistance, but they haven’t had the capacity to fulfill the community’s growing need, Cooley said. She hasn’t found another food box distributor.
“People still call me,” she said. “They ask: ‘Miss Cooley, when are we going to get some more food?’ I don’t feel good at all when somebody truly needs help and we have nothing to give them.”
Another of the Federation’s partners was Mississippi Rising Coalition, a nonprofit that delivered about 500 food boxes every week to both rural and urban communities across the state over the summer.
“These areas are not only impacted by COVID, but they’re also food deserts where nutritious food is hard to come by, expensive, or inaccessible,” said Lea Campbell, the organization’s president. “The food box program filled a really desperate need and I don’t understand the rationale behind ending the [Federation’s] contract.”
James Skinner, the director of the group’s Food Security Initiative, personally drove a rented U-Haul truck from the Gulf Coast to Mississippi’s Pine Belt to deliver the boxes to community centers, immigrant advocacy groups, international students, and a university food pantry. Hundreds of volunteers worked to make the deliveries and distribution a success. “It was very disappointing when the contract ended,” Skinner said. “The hardest thing was to turn people away.”
Mississippi Rising has not been able to connect with one of the new USDA-approved box distributors since its contract ended in September. The group has continued to occasionally provide food when they receive direct donations from farmers, but Skinner and Campbell say the donations in no way match the consistency and volume of the food box program.
Gainesville-based Hispanic Alliance of Georgia, another group the Federation supplied over the summer, is having a similar experience. “The company that supplies [food boxes to] Georgia is in Florida and is not answering the phone,” said Vanessa Sarazua, the Alliance’s executive director. “We can’t reach them and we need to be able to provide this food.”
In Gainesville, where the Latinx community is more than 40 percent of the population and most Latinos toil in low-wage jobs such as poultry processing plants, the more than 40 agencies that are part of the food bank distribution system rarely serve their needs, said Sarazua. The boxes helped fill this gap.
For communities that are still receiving boxes, the contents have changed significantly. Despite the promise of “locally sourced” produce, as touted in Trump’s letter, many of the boxes now come packed with processed meat and other commodities. According to the USDA, for rounds three and four, contractors were required to include “1 or 2 locally grown fruit or vegetable items, as available, and if none available, add additional items of vendors choice.”
“In essence, it’s gone from a model where we’re serving collard greens and peas to serving hot dogs,” Blanding of the Federation said. “Yeah, people are eating. But I think it matters [what they eat]. So, this shift is concerning.”
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.”
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.”
Sarazua of Hispanic Alliance of Georgia agrees. “Hopefully, the USDA can look at it as a future model to more directly reach vulnerable children and families.”