New public records reveal high cost of USDA’s Farmers to Families food box program

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Complaints about the boxes surfaced on social media in June. Some recipients reported that their boxes arrived containing frozen, inedible bananas, and, in one case, no fresh produce at all. Half of the box’s contents were imported from the mainland, a local news outlet reported, which many saw as a missed opportunity to support Puerto Rican farmers. Worse, in mid-May, the company failed to appear at a scheduled box distribution event in the San Juan metropolitan area, leaving 600 families to wait in line for emergency food aid that would never come, said Denise Santos, chief executive of the Puerto Rico Food Bank, which partnered with the company to host the event.

Caribbean Produce Exchange is one of more than 200 private-sector companies contracted by USDA to furnish hunger relief organizations with pre-assembled boxes of produce, dairy, and pre-cooked meat. A cornerstone of the Trump administration’s hunger relief efforts during the Covid-19 crisis, the sprawling food box program has delivered more than 75 million boxes of food since mid-May. 

The concept is straightforward: USDA has paid distributors, religious organizations, nonprofits, at least one caterer, an airport kiosk company, and a handful of farms more than $2.7 billion in total to assemble and distribute the emergency food boxes, erecting new supply chains virtually out of thin air as they by-pass overtaxed grocery stores. The program has issued two rounds of contracts—Caribbean Produce Exchange’s contract, already worth $107 million, was renewed for the second round in late June—and is currently accepting bids for round three, which will run through the end of October. 

In theory, the food-box program plugs the holes that Covid-19 blasted in the traditional food-aid infrastructure as grocery store donations dried up, farmers were left without workers to harvest their crops, and pantries were forced to pivot to curbside distribution, pre-packaging groceries for a swelling client base made newly food-insecure by the economic toll of the pandemic. The prices USDA pays suppliers for these boxes are supposed to cover all related costs, including labor for assembly, materials for packaging, and “truck to trunk” distribution of the boxes themselves—an important bonus for food banks that have limited refrigeration and trucking capacity at their disposal to transfer boxes from one hub to the next. 

In reality, though, some of the program’s core promises have gone unmet. That’s due at least in part to the fact that many of the companies awarded the lucrative contracts are ill-equipped to handle food in any real quantity. Food bank operators report having to pay the bill for delivery from their own budgets, receiving boxes that are leaking or falling apart, and that arrive full of commercial-grade bags of meat with no instructions for how to prepare it. 

Despite these failures, new public records reviewed by The Counter indicate that the boxes have cost well above what USDA typically pays farmers and manufacturers for food it buys for food banks and schools—and, in some cases, well above what they’re actually worth. Multiple food-aid professionals we interviewed for this story said they could provide the same service for a fraction of the price by purchasing food through their existing networks, even after accounting for the costs of cardboard, transportation, and labor. Even so, the Trump administration has doubled down on support for the program. Just last week, it announced an additional $1 billion in funding. 

“These boxes should cost $25 to $40, maximum.”

According to public records obtained by The Counter that disclose contractors’ invoice totals and the number of boxes they delivered, Caribbean Produce Exchange was paid an average of $86.27 per box during the period spanning from mid-May to the end of June. The company invoiced USDA $99 for each box intended for families, and less for smaller boxes meant for single-person households. Local producers and hunger relief professionals say they can—and do—stretch the same amount much further. 

“These boxes should cost $25 to $40, maximum,” said Marisel Robles, an organizer for Comedores Sociales, a nonprofit that distributes food aid to families in Puerto Rico, referring to how much she thinks these boxes should really cost USDA, especially given that Caribbean Produce Exchange most likely buys food at distributor prices, which are significantly lower than the retail prices shoppers pay at supermarkets. “A contract that big means that someone is profiting a lot,” Robles said. “It doesn’t make sense.” 

Caribbean Produce Exchange confirmed its box prices, but said that they were fair. The company also confirmed that it couldn’t meet some of its early delivery commitments, but said that any affected families later received food via other distribution channels. 

Caribbean Produce Exchange isn’t the only distributor getting handsome payouts for lackluster food boxes. In Texas, San Antonio Food Bank CEO Eric Cooper said he was initially hopeful that the Farmers to Families Food Box program would provide a much-needed influx of food to his organization, which was seeing 120,000 people a week at the start of the pandemic, up from 60,000 in a typical week.

USDA awarded a $39 million contract to CRE8AD8, a local catering company Cooper wasn’t familiar with, to supply him with emergency boxes for his clients that contained produce, dairy, and pre-cooked meat. Cooper told us that the first truckload of protein boxes to arrive held 25-pound boxes of frozen, pre-cooked pepper chicken, packaged in five-pound bags. “We were thinking, if it’s a mixed protein box that a family would receive, it would be a variety, packaged for retail, with instructions on how to prepare, cook, re-heat,” Cooper said. “What we got from CRE8AD8 and [sub-contractor] Gourmet Foods was an institutional pack, what we would call a case of chicken.” It wasn’t something a family could easily break down into portions small enough to cook at home. 

Cooper said he asked CRE8AD8 for re-heating instructions, and the company told him the chicken could be microwaved. He called the manufacturer, which he said told him the same thing. Cooper asked the company to put that in writing so that he could include printed directions in the boxes. Eventually, he heard from the manufacturer again: The bags weren’t microwave-safe after all. The chicken had to be boiled in the bag. “After complaining, we stopped getting that food,” Cooper said. “Protein is something we needed the most, but any feedback was received with kind of harsh rejection.” 

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