Delgado, Tonko Lead NY Delegation Demanding Answers on Food Box Failures

July 13, 2020
Press Release
Just 4% of program funding has gone to entire Northeast, local food banks completely shut out

RHINEBECK, NY—U.S. Representatives Antonio Delgado (NY-19) and Paul D. Tonko (NY-20) led more than a dozen members of New York’s Congressional Delegation today in a stern letter to Sonny Perdue, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), demanding answers and public transparency over the agency’s mishandling of the USDA Food Box program.

“Both our family farmers in upstate and most vulnerable populations have experienced dire consequences from the coronavirus pandemic and it is essential that the programs designed to assist both communities are transparent and good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” said Rep. Delgado, a member of the House Agriculture Committee. “I authored this letter with Rep. Tonko to get the answers we need from the Trump Administration about how these contract decisions were made and their plans to ensure that going forward these resources are awarded in a transparent manner and in a way that ensures our region of the country is properly accounted for.”

“Following several efforts by Congress and others to raise concerns with USDA, the Trump Administration could easily have remedied these issues of inequity and transparency,” noted Rep. Tonko. “Instead they have chosen to double down on their obvious and puzzling mismanagement of this vital food assistance program in the middle of our nation’s worsening COVID-19 epidemic. I cannot fathom why USDA continues to exclude local food banks that are already set up to do this work in support of the neediest among us.  Instead, USDA has chosen to award lucrative food distribution contracts to small out-of-state companies that have little or no presence or capacity here. This kind of mismanagement does real and lasting harm to the people and communities we serve, and USDA needs to answer for it.”

Despite Congressional outreach and growing media attention on the issue, USDA continues to assign disproportionately few contracts to organizations covering the Northeastern United States. New York and New England together account for 10 percent of the national population but received just four percent of contract funding in the first round and even less in the second.  Some areas have been overlooked entirely. For example, the Northeast Regional Food Bank, which serves 23 counties including all of Northern New York, was completely shut out of the second round of distribution contracts after only receiving one contract in the first.  Food banks in service areas without contracts are being left to beg for contracts from vendors out of their area, with no guarantee that they will be able to get food. 

In addition to previous Congressional outreach, numerous stakeholders have reached out to the Administration to request clarifications and improvements.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has created near-Great-Depression levels of unemployment in the United States,” said Dan Egan, Executive Director at Feeding New York State. “New York's ten food banks have had to double our food distribution as the need for charitable food skyrocketed. At the same time, our farmers lost many of their markets and had surplus food available. New Yorkers have stepped up at the farm, at the food bank and in every community to support each other in this crisis. It's not clear to us why USDA was not able to do the same. Because we are far from the end of this crisis, the Covid-19 Farm Assistance Program must be scrutinized and improved so that it can become the major contributor it ought to be, ensuring all Americans get enough to eat and all farms are supported."

"We are pleased that we have been able to receive additional food through the CFAP program to help us feed the thousands of people in need during this pandemic,” said Mark Quandt, Director of the Northeast Regional Food Bank.  “However, we are also disappointed in the implementation of the program.  Only one vendor in the entire 23 county region we serve was awarded a contract to distribute food, so we had to reach out to companies in other states and other parts of New York State and hope they would provide food for us.  We had some success, but the process was difficult and cumbersome, and the quality of the boxes varied greatly from vendor to vendor.  We hoped the process would improve in round two that began on July 1, but we heard nothing from USDA or vendors until the very end of June and we still have no idea how much food we will be receiving in this round.  The program has great potential and I believe it has worked well for some food banks, but it is not living up to its potential in our area." 

The full text of this letter can be found here or below:

The Honorable Sonny Perdue

Secretary of Agriculture

U.S. Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20250

We write today to obtain additional information regarding the Farmers to Families Food Box Program for which the Department of Agriculture has recently awarded contracts.

As you know, COVID-19 has only amplified our national need for food banks.  Since the widespread onset of the virus in mid-March, forcing closures of schools and spikes in unemployment, food banks have seen about a 70 percent increase in their demand[1].  Simultaneously, the shuttering of restaurants and schools prompted enormous changes to food demand, leading many food producers, particularly in the dairy and meat industry, to throw away good food. They did so at enormous financial cost.

Congress authorized the Farmers to Families Food Box Program as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to remedy this problem. The overall goal of this program was to connect those food producers with excess food to the communities who need it most.  Unfortunately, however, reporting has shown that the program is failing to achieve that mission. The rushed and non-transparent process that the USDA used to award food distribution contracts has resulted in a highly inequitable program that does not reflect need. Only 4 percent of the distribution contracts awarded by the USDA were awarded to the Northeast region in the first cycle of distribution, despite having been the hardest-hit region of the Coronavirus pandemic[2].  The Northeast received one-fifth of the relief per COVID patient than the next-least-funded region. The second cycle of distribution, released on July 1, did not include any new Northeast vendors, and did not include any additional information regarding how vendors were selected.

We also have been troubled by concerns that the organizations awarded food distribution contracts are often logistically ill-equipped to deliver food at scale. Reports have shown that there are many companies awarded contracts so large that they needed to hire external staff to carry out the contracts. Other reports suggest that almost a third of the contractors selected by the USDA are not properly licensed to deliver the food they are contractually obligated to deliver.

We all know this is a critical time for our families and our farmers. We all want to make sure that this program and others designed to provide urgently needed food to Americans are successful in the most efficient and effective way.

We all know this is a critical time for our families and our farmers. We all want to make sure that this program and others designed to provide urgently needed food to Americans are successful in the most efficient and effective way.

Given these concerns, we are hopeful that the USDA can provide us answers to the following questions regarding the selection and implementation of this program no later than July 17, 2020:

  1. Outline the guidance USDA employed to determine how much funding would be distributed to each region. What metric was it based on?
  2. How did the USDA determine if an applicant would be awarded a contract? What rubric was used to evaluate proposals?
  3. Was comment or feedback provided to applicants who were not awarded contracts? Please provide records of the applicants’ inquiries and your responses. 
  4. What quality assurance measures does USDA have in place to ensure that food boxes are actually delivered to not-for-profits? Please provide all documentation to demonstrate that such deliveries are taking place before payment is processed.
  5. How does the USDA ensure that food within the food boxes meets minimum standards of quality? How does the USDA ensure that distributors maintain proper food safety procedures when transporting food?
  6. Did USDA interact or consult with Feeding America in any way in the implementation of this program?  Please provide a record of any such communication. 
  7. Please provide a complete list of all not-for-profits that have delivery relationships with CFAP box contractors.
  8. What preparations are taking place right now for the next RFP round? Will current contracts be renewed? Will applicants from the first round be automatically considered, or will they have to resubmit?

We look forward to receiving the requested information and to working with you to achieve that goal.

Signed,

 

U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko (NY-20)

U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado (NY-19), House Agriculture Committee Member

U.S. Rep. Thomas R. Suozzi (NY-03)

U.S. Rep. Kathleen M. Rice (NY-04)

U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (NY-06)

U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (NY-07), House Small Business Committee Chair

U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08), Democratic Caucus Chair

U.S. Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (NY-09), House Energy & Commerce Committee Vice-Chair

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (NY-10)

U.S. Rep. José E. Serrano (NY-15)

U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (NY-16)

U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (NY-17), House Appropriations Committee Chair

U.S. Rep. Joseph D. Morelle (NY-25)

U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins (NY-26)