(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A worker stacking food boxes at a distribution center in Maryland on May 15, 2020, as part of the rollout of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program which had been intended to source food from small business farms and distribute to non-profits and faith-based groups. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Wisconsin farmers saw distribution failures in the Trump-era Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

Wisconsin agriculture officials said the shutdown of the federal Farmers to Families Food Box Program at the end of this month will leave the state’s farmers without one of their outlets to sell products to, but they’re optimistic that initiative will be replaced by another effort, one less problematic to some Wisconsin farmers. 

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced the discontinuation of the Food Box Program because of repeated inefficiencies operating the program under the administration of former President Donald Trump. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on April 14 the program would end in May because of ongoing problems. 

Vilsack said his department is seeking to replace the food box initiative with another effort that would benefit farmers while getting food to people who need it. Details of that plan have not yet been announced.

Randy Romanski, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection secretary, said it appears some Wisconsin farmers benefited from the Food Box Program, and he hopes the USDA can put together a replacement initiative. He said the department received complaints about lack of transparency and distribution with food box efforts and shared them with USDA officials. 

“We look forward to continuing our communications with USDA as they seek ways to develop additional market opportunities for Wisconsin farmers and food processors while helping people who are experiencing food insecurity,” Romanski said.

The Food Box Program was established last spring as the coronavirus pandemic grew across America, starting with the Families First Coronavirus Response Actand was later funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act.It was administered by former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. 

The USDA purchased fresh products directly from farmers and partnered with local distributors to get food to families in need. It provided the hard-hit agriculture sector with a means of marketing products when restaurants and other large food-service providers saw reduced business or shut down entirely. 

However, a federal review of the food box program discovered instances in which those receiving food delivered through the program were overcharged. In other cases there was little accounting of where food was delivered to, and much of the food was wasted.

Problems with the Food Box Program in Wisconsin had become apparent by last summer, when food pantry operators said the state was receiving too little funding from the program to adequately pay farmers and get food to people in need. Democratic federal lawmakers representing Wisconsin sent a letter to Perdue seeking answers about how contracts were awarded through the program. 

While some Wisconsin farmers benefited from the food box program, inefficiencies plagued the effort and left some who wanted to participate and needed the income out of the mix, said Tyler Wenzlaff, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation director of government relations.

The program was too large, he said, and lacked enough oversight to be operated effectively. Another problem, Wenzlaff said, was that big purchases of cheese drove up prices for milk used for that purpose but pushed down the price of milk sold for drinking. 

“You saw these really large changes in price,” he said. “It certainly upset the market. That wasn’t something we expected.” 

The USDA will continue to provide food to people in need through the Emergency Food Assistance Program in partnership with food banks and pantries. Nick Levendofsky, director of government relations for Wisconsin Farmers Union, said that program likely will be much more efficient than the Food Box Program.

“It’s my understanding there were many problems with USDA’s federal Food Box Program, and a new administration means programs like this can get a new set of eyes on it to determine what works best and what hasn’t worked at all,” he said.

WFU would like to see additional programs linking locally produced food to government nutrition programs, Levendofsky said, and views the food box program discontinuation as an opportunity to “refocus priorities within existing and new programs.”

Despite concerns with the food box program, Wenzlaff said he backs USDA efforts to find a program that would continue to pay farmers to provide products to people in need as the already struggling agriculture sector seeks to bounce back from additional economic challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We’re excited to see what is next,” he said.