The Agriculture Department is ending the Farmers to Families Food Box program and shifting to more effective ways of delivering fresh produce and dairy products, says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

May will be the last month of the program. 

“We're going to continue to provide healthy food, but we're going to do it through the most efficient system that we have,” including food banks and a new Dairy Donation Program authorized by Congress, Vilsack told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday.

The Trump administration launched the program last year in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdowns that shut down the hospitality and food service markets. About 157 million boxes have been delivered so far, with existing contracts ending this month.

But Vilsack said that there were significant disparities in administrative costs, and “in some cases, people were charged a tremendous amount just to fill the boxes.”

According to USDA, the average price of a box fluctuated from as low as $28 to as high as $105, and distribution costs and the content of boxes varied from place to place. 

There was also “an inadequate accounting of where the boxes were actually delivered,” Vilsack said. “There was a lot of food waste and loss that we uncovered” during listening sessions USDA held.

To partly replace the Food Box program, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service announced on Monday that it would be expanding offerings under the Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, to include fruit and vegetable boxes. Vilsack described the food bank system as “incredibly efficient and incredibly effective at getting resources out to folks.”

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On Tuesday, AMS formally informed dairy producers and processors about ongoing plans for the Dairy Donation Program. The program will reimburse processors for contributions of dairy products to nonprofit organizations that distribute to the needy.

"We're going to try to take ... what we've learned about the best of that (Food Box) program and incorporate it into our traditional, regular programs, which are very efficient in terms of food distribution, so that way I think you get the best of both worlds," Vilsack said. "You get product being used product being available to people, nutritious product being available, but you get it through a very efficient and effective delivery mechanism."

The Food Marketing Institute, which represents major grocery retailers including Walmart, Kroger and Amazon, welcomed Vilsack’s decision to end the food box program.

“The food industry has worked throughout this national emergency to redistribute products that were originally intended for restaurants and other food service outlets and redirect them to the grocery aisles — all while maintaining necessary food safety and labeling requirements,” said Hannah Walker, vice president of political affairs for FMI.

“These experiences offered some valuable insights and lessons learned that could be used in future pilots.”

The program was criticized in its early rounds for not covering all areas and using out-of-state or unqualified contractors to deliver boxes. And Feeding America and its 200 food bank members, as well as other anti-hunger advocates, argued that while the program provided some benefits, increases in benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are more efficient in providing nutrition assistance and provide more dignity for recipients, who can choose the food they want.

Supporters, however, said the program provided valuable assistance to producers who had seen the loss of markets such as food service due to COVID-19, and allowed recipients to get fresh, nutritious food.

USDA recently said that the program was authorized to purchase and distribute up to $6 billion in agricultural products and estimated that it will have spent $4.9 billion by April 30.

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