USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program needs to eventually give way to more established government nutrition practices, Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue told a virtual gathering of the nation’s produce farmers Tuesday.

The $4 billion initiative has been one of the most tangible representations of the Trump administration’s efforts to feed hungry people during the coronavirus pandemic, and there was interest — particularly on the part of the United Fresh Produce Association, which Perdue was addressing — in making the boxes a long-term part of the nation’s food policy.

Perdue has traveled around the country in recent months, often flanked by other administration officials including President Donald Trump or White House adviser Ivanka Trump, taking part in food box distribution events. He said the program has been “a blessing to participate in,” but should eventually give way to the protocols that were in place prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think most of us honestly want to get back to whatever we define as normal in that regard and look at the programs we have generally,” Perdue told United Fresh President and CEO Tom Stenzel.

The boxes typically contain a mixture of produce, dairy, and proteins and have been distributed to hungry people after being created as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program rollout earlier this year. In theory, the program would take the surplus food that distributors were unable to sell to restaurants and food service providers during the pandemic and redistribute it to the needy.

Some in ag had wondered if the boxes might become a regular fixture of America’s food policy. To that point, Stenzel — who was moderating the United Fresh conversation with Perdue — framed the question by asking “what can we do to make sure something like this can continue?”

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For his part, Perdue said he’s looking for programs in place prior to the pandemic to resume their normal operations and take on the challenge of feeding America’s hungry.

“We’ve got other programs that really help the people that are food insecure,” he said. “The efficient food supply chain we have once our restaurants get back open is probably a better value source of our delivery than even what we're doing now.”

While the program has played a major role in getting food to hungry people, it has not been without controversy. Early issues choosing contractors to facilitate the program resulted in a more judicious approach to choosing distributors in later rounds of the program. Some of the early boxes were also criticized for the food they included, which USDA addressed in its most recent round by saying it would be purchasing combination boxes with a mix of foods.

According to USDA’s Ag Marketing Service, nearly 96 million boxes have been invoiced since mid-May.

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