Md. Lawmakers Urge USDA to Increase Statewide Access to COVID-19 Food Security Program

U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), left, and U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

Maryland’s congressional delegation sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue this week, imploring the agency to alter its Farmers to Families Food Box Program to include more Maryland families and vendors. 

“We are disappointed to learn that multiple Maryland vendors and municipalities did not receive sufficient support from the program’s third round,” the letter reads. “We urge the Department take immediate action to remedy this as it impacts the food sources of thousands of Marylanders.”

The letter, led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) and signed also by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) and Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (D), C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D), John P. Sarbanes (D), Kweisi Mfume (D), Anthony G. Brown (D), Jamie B. Raskin (D) and David J. Trone (D), asks Purdue to provide more information about:

  • The process used to determine the total number of boxes to be received by the state in the third round;
  • How jurisdictions are chosen to receive food boxes;
  • And how the USDA decides to move forward with vendor contracts. 

The Maryland delegation wrote that data from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service shows a 74% decrease in the number of food boxes invoiced during the program’s third round of purchases.

Maryland’s lone Republican member of Congress, Rep. Andrew P. Harris, did not sign the letter.

The agency secured contracts with 54 vendors for round three, four of which are from Maryland. During the first round, the USDA awarded $1,219,568,091 to nearly 200 vendors. A little over 200 vendors received contracts for the $1.4 billion-second round, as well. 

“This decrease in contracts has a direct negative impact on the food insecure people of Maryland,” the letter reads.

The Farmers to Families Food Box program began in April in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that left hordes of Americans without jobs. Covered under the CARES Act passed in the spring, the program dispenses surplus produce, dairy and meats from farms to the food insecure via food banks and non-profit community organizations. 

According to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the initiative invoiced 35.7 million family-sized boxes of food in the first round of purchases from mid-May to late June, and 65.8 million boxes during the second round, which began in July and was extended through mid-September.

For round three’s purchases, the USDA has invoiced 10.4 million food boxes via Basic Ordering Agreement contracts.  And the total contract value for round three is valued at more than $850 million. Round three ends Friday, Oct. 30.

The USDA announced last week that $500 million has been set aside for a fourth round of food purchases, and is looking to award contracts to vendors by Thursday.

The fourth round begins Nov. 1 and will last through the balance of the year.

“I’m gratified by the overwhelmingly positive response to the Farmers to Families Food Box program from families, distributors, food banks, faith-based organizations and non-profits in communities across the country,” Perdue said in a statement. “I’m very pleased that we are able to extend this program and continue our relief efforts for American farmers and families.” 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck the state in early March, hundreds of thousands of Marylanders have found themselves relying upon federal programs to ensure their families have enough to eat. 

A report released by Maryland Hunger Solutions last week found a 400% increase in the number of Marylanders who applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, between March and April of this year.

Lawmakers assert that decreased access to the Farmers to Families Food Box program has impeded the ability of Maryland jurisdictions to feed their most vulnerable. According to their letter, Montgomery County was receiving 26,000 boxes of food a week prior to the program’s third round. That number has since been reduced to 3,000 boxes. 

Baltimore is not receiving any food boxes currently, even though the city saw a 600% surge in SNAP applications in the first month of the pandemic, according to Maryland Hunger Solutions’ report.

“As the pandemic continues, it is essential that Maryland residents have access to products that support a nutritionally complete diet,” Maryland’s delegation wrote. “Without this third round of contracts to Maryland vendors, cities across Maryland are now facing a widening gap of food insecurity that the food box operation aimed to prevent.”

The delegation also took aim at the inclusion of a letter written and signed by President Trump in each food box.

The letter, which started to make appearances in the boxes in September, says the Trump administration “prioritized” delivering over 50 million Farmers to Families boxes to food-insecure people across the country.

“As President, safeguarding the health and well-being of our citizens is one of my highest priorities,” Trump’s letter reads. “As part of our response to the coronavirus, I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America.”

At the close of their letter to Perdue, Maryland lawmakers said it would be irresponsible if they did not take an opportunity to condemn the president’s self-aggrandizing gesture.

“Finally, we would be remiss if we did not express our very serious concerns with your attempt to require that self-promoting letters from the President be included in each box,” they wrote. “This is a highly inappropriate and blatantly political use of taxpayer dollars.”

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