WASHINGTON — A new federal program to connect hungry families with boxes of fresh food from farmers has launched in New York, but demand is outstripping supply, even as distributors package tens of thousands of boxes.
The program, heralded by the Trump administration appears particularly ill-equipped to address skyrocketing hunger in the Northeast, because it awarded just 4 percent of the funds to companies in the region so far.
James Desiderio Inc., a food wholesaler in Buffalo, received a $2 million contract from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box program to distribute 91,000 boxes of fruits and vegetables to organizations that can deliver it to the hungry. It will give the boxes to food banks in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. and Erie, Penn., as well as some smaller local organizations. But the calls asking for food just keep coming.
“We’ve had interest from everybody—school districts, churches. We actually had the Buffalo Police Department call and ask us,” Nick Desiderio, a co-owner of James Desiderio, Inc., said. “We’ve been getting a lot of interest from the New York City area. We haven’t exactly said no to it, but our main focus is our city.”
Across the country, the USDA has contracted 198 companies to create $1.2 billion worth of boxes of fresh produce, dairy products and meat. This the first round of what will be a $3 billion program aimed at addressing food insecurity caused by the coronavirus.
However, only 29 companies won contracts to distribute in the Northeast region, including eight from New York. Their contracts totaled $54 million — about 4 percent of the total food boxes funds. Thus, local food banks said it is especially hard to secure the food boxes in the Northeast.
“Honestly, the Northeast was really short-changed,” said Joanne Dwyer, director of Food Industry Relations at the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. “Everyone is trying to reach out to the same small pool of distributors that only have so many boxes they are able to provide.”
The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York has secured some food boxes from Glazier Packing, food service distributors based in Malone, N.Y. Glaziers was the only vendor to receive a contract in 23 counties in Northeastern New York. The Regional Bank is also getting some boxes from vendors from Smith Packing Co. in Utica, and two distributors in Boston, Mass. and Hatfield, Penn., Dwyer said, for a total of 32,500 boxes. before June 30.
Some of the distributors received larger contracts to produce boxes for multiple regions. But those distributors are often even more swamped by demand.
The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York is working with one multi-regional distributor, Dwyer said, but “We’ve reached out to all of them and they just don’t have product.”
The USDA did not immediately respond to emailed questions about food box distribution in the Northeast.
Glazier Packing, which won a contract for $2.5 million, will distribute about 5,000 boxes of produce and dairy each week through June 30, along with over 360,000 gallons of milk, said Shawn Glazier, owner and president of Glazier Packing.
“There is a huge amount of demand,” Glazier said. “Most of our boxes are already allocated.”
About 300,000 people have applied for food stamps in the past 10 weeks in New York. The Food Box program is intended to address the problems of growing hunger and disrupted supply chains for farmers and food suppliers.
“We did notice that the dairies that we participated with were having trouble with the school closings, institutions closing…to see the farmers, the milk being picked up and then literally being dumped in the field across the street, was heartbreaking,” Glazier said. The Food Box program is helping Glazier buy this milk and also bring back some of his 48 employees from layoffs, he said.
“This program allowed me to keep people employed and allowed me to bring people back in to pack boxes,” Glazier said.
Broccoli Associates, Inc. in Utica received a contract for $1.2 million to produce over 40,000 boxes of precooked meats and combination boxes with produce, dairy and meat. They started distributing the boxes to food banks in the Mohawk Valley and Central New York last week.
“We are extremely busy. Our demand has skyrocketed because there is simply not enough food out there right now. People need to go to food banks who have never been before,” said RJ Broccoli, director of sales. “We’re booked out three months on products right now.”
The Farmers to Families Food Box Program was launched by the President’s daughter Ivanka Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on May 15, who noted that many of the contractors were small suppliers.
The USDA quickly approved bids for the $3 billion program, so fast that some companies had an approved contract in hand one week after they applied, distributors said.
But lawmakers have raised questions about some of the large contracts that were awarded, particularly how a wedding and corporate event planner CR8AD8 in San Antonio was approved for a $39 million contract. CR8AD8 may have falsified some of its credentials in order to receive the bid, the San Antonio Express-News reported.
Other contracts were awarded to companies without clear food distribution experience including a wellness kiosk company and a trade finance corporation, while bypassing some of the nation’s largest food distributors, the Washington Post reported.
“USDA awarding 198 contracts in a week involved a process that failed to protect taxpayers, the hungry and producers with food going to waste,” wrote Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Tx. in a letter for Perdue, this week.
The USDA has already terminated a $40 million contract with California Avocados Direct to deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to food banks.
Despite some of these issues, local distributors said they hope the USDA will extend the program beyond June so they can continue to get food to hungry mouths.
“There is a massive need out there,” Broccoli said. “We’re really trying to do our part to help.”