California school districts spurn ‘back-patting’ Trump food box letter

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Volunteers stand with boxes of produce at a drive-up produce giveaway | AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Los Angeles Unified School District will not include a letter from President Donald Trump inside of food boxes that are part of the Agriculture Department’s Farmers to Families Program. | AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

SACRAMENTO — The superintendent of the nation’s second largest school district on Wednesday accused President Donald Trump of possibly violating the Hatch Act by inserting a letter in food boxes for distribution at schools and pantries just weeks before Election Day.

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner said that the district, which enrolls more than 600,000 students, will not include a “back-patting” letter from Trump inside of food boxes that are part of the Agriculture Department’s Farmers to Families Program. The program redirects meat, dairy and produce to low-income families instead of the restaurants and other food-service businesses that normally receive them.

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Beutner became the latest schools chief to spurn Trump’s message in deep blue California. A day earlier, the head of San Diego Unified ordered her food service department to pull Trump’s letter from boxes due to its soft mask-wearing advice. Sacramento and Oakland schools handed out boxes with the Trump letter but issued a separate message also praising Congress — led by Democrats — and made clear that their districts were not taking political sides.

At LAUSD, 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price school meals based on low household income. Since March, Los Angeles Unified has provided about 68 million meals, including 2.5 million from the Farmers to Families Program, according to the district.

“The letter may be a violation of the Hatch Act and will further politicize the response to COVID-19,” Beutner said in a letter to Trump on Wednesday. “It is of great concern your letter arrived on my desk at the same time as press reports that the Trump Administration will no longer engage with Congress in discussions about further federal relief programs. Getting emergency funding to schools now is a necessary step to reopening schools and getting the economy back on track.”

Critics have accused Trump of politicizing poverty and using the food relief program as a campaign tool. The included letter, on White House stationary, is signed by Trump and says, “As part of our response to coronavirus, I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America.”

Democratic lawmakers have also accused the letter inside food boxes of violating the Hatch Act, the federal law preventing executive branch employees from engaging in political activity.

In Ohio, food bank leaders sought legal counsel about Hatch Act concerns. In a legal memo shared with POLITICO, law firm Reminger determined that the letters do not violate the law because they don’t explicitly mention the election and the letter is not “directed towards the success or failure of a political party, candidate for political office or partisan political group.”

A USDA spokesman said Wednesday that “politics has played zero role” in the Farmers to Families food box program.

“The letter from President Trump has been included for several months now and contains health information that is critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19,” a spokesperson said in an email.

San Diego Unified, California’s second largest district, directed schools on Tuesday to remove the letters from food boxes, citing Trump’s recommendation to “consider” wearing a mask in public.

The letter landed right as Trump and various White House officials were diagnosed in the past few days with the coronavirus.

“Wearing masks is required in California and on every San Diego Unified school campus. It is not optional, as the president wrote in his letter,” Superintendent Cindy Marten said Tuesday.

Sacramento City Unified issued its own letter alongside Trump’s in the food boxes, distancing itself from the president. The district distributes about 1,000 of the boxes a week.

“Vendors were required to include the letter or lose federal funding or participation in the program. As it is unusual for the distribution of such a letter to be required close to an election, we want to be clear with our families that the letter in the food box is not an endorsement of any political candidate by the district,” Sacramento City Unified said in a letter to families on Wednesday.

The Oakland Unified School District issued a statement about the Trump letter on Monday after distributing boxes to students and hearing complaints in the heavily Democratic district.

“We are removing what we can, but our nutrition services staff processes a lot of food, so they may not be able to get all of the letters,” OUSD spokesman John Sasaki said Wednesday.

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