Washington (CNN)As the country slowly climbs out of the pandemic, the Biden administration is ending a program that delivered nearly 167 million boxes of fresh food to families in need and helped farmers sell their produce at a time when supply chain disruptions forced them to dump milk and destroy their crops.
It’s one of many emergency federal aid programs that the government must decide how to wind down in a way that doesn’t create more problems for those still in need — and some, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, the new chairman of the Senate nutrition subcommittee, are calling on the government to keep a version of the food box program permanent to ensure needy families can get deliveries of fresh fruits and vegetables.
The $4 trillion in federal aid pumped into US economy over the past year has helped it bounce back, but the recovery has been uneven and is still far from complete. The nation is still down 8 million jobs compared to its pre-pandemic level. While the recession has nearly ended for high-wage workers, the unemployment rate for those earning less than $27,000 a year remains stubbornly high at nearly 28%, according a project at Harvard University tracking the recovery called Opportunity Insights.
Many families continue to struggle to put food on the table. As of March, nearly 9% of adults lived in households that sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat — a share several times larger than at any point in 2019, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Over the past year, the Capital Area Food Bank based in Washington, DC, helped deliver more than 1 million of the food boxes to families, making up nearly one-third of the meals it provided during the pandemic. The agency said it hopes the deliveries, known as Farmers to Families Food Box, will survive in some form even after the pandemic program ends this month.
“For our clients, the recovery is a long and slow one,” said Radha Muthiah, Capital Area Food Bank’s president and CEO. “The most important thing is to provide good, nutritious food for them and we certainly still need USDA as a partner.”
A ‘revolutionary’ program
The Farmers to Families Food Box program spent about $5 billion over the past year to hire private distributors that connected farmers with food banks and other non-profits trying to meet the increased need from hungry families.
There were some early concerns about the types of companies the USDA contracted with, including a Texas-based event scheduler, that had little experience distributing food. But despite the initial criticism, the program became quite popular. In the run-up to the election, former President Donald Trump required that the boxes include a letter from him touting the benefit. His daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump, appeared helping to hand out the boxes at several press events.
It helped farmers sell their produce after supply chains were disrupted by the sudden closures of restaurants and schools. And it helped food banks and nonprofits that suddenly faced an explosion in demand and a simultaneous drop-off in donations.
The Farmers to Families Food Box program was brand new, created by the USDA last April using funds provided by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. While th
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