The Washington Monument is visible as ​Kristof Grina, co-founder & farm director for Up Top Acres, works wearing a mask at sunrise on one of their rooftop farms in the Navy Yard neighborhood May 14, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON - With the coronavirus outbreak causing billions of dollars’ worth of agricultural products to go to waste, the Trump administration on Friday launched the “Farmers to Families Food Box,” a $3 billion purchase and distribution program connecting low-income Americans with suppliers whose food supply chains have been devastated by the closure of food service entities.

Adviser to the President Ivanka Trump and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue visited a Coastal Sunbelt Produce facility in Laurel, Maryland, to highlight the program.

“These are 20- to 25-pound boxes of the finest fresh produce, often locally grown, that will be delivered to food banks, to community and faith-based organizations and other nonprofits serving Americans in need across the country,” Trump said.

The pandemic has caused widespread closures of restaurants, hotels and schools, leaving farmers without their usual buyers and saddled with a food distribution network that cannot be quickly transferred to other buyers such as grocery stores.

“It was horrifying to hear about vegetables having to be plowed under because of no markets, and milk having to be dumped, animals potentially having to be euthanized because we had broken the supply chain,” Perdue said. “And most of us didn't realize it was a dual supply chain, one going to the food service industry and one going to the grocery stores. When that one is cut off, we had to . . . pivot nimbly.”

In the first round of the Farmers to Families Food Box program, roughly the next 45 days, the USDA has awarded $1.2 billion in contracts. Participating farmers will receive assistance for their businesses and provide fresh food to those most in need. Companies such as Coastal Produce will source, package and deliver the produce to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits serving low-income families.

The food box program is part of the USDA $19 billion assistance program for farmers using funding provided in the CARES Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).

Danger to food stamps?

Anti-poverty advocates are concerned the food box program might further weaken the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal program also known as food stamps that helps millions of low-income Americans.

“We need all hands on deck in this hunger crisis, so I'm certainly supportive of attempts at innovative ways to fight hunger,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America. “However, I am concerned that the administration is using this as a backdoor way to try to implement the food box proposal in lieu of SNAP.”

As the country’s unemployment rate soared to a record high 14.7 percent, use of SNAP increased. But enrollment may soon become more difficult, with the Trump administration pushing to implement more-stringent policies.

Earlier this week the USDA said it is appealing a court ruling that blocked the Trump administration from imposing additional work requirements on poor adults without children to qualify for SNAP.

In a statement, James D. Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center, said the additional requirements would weaken the nation’s first defense against hunger – and take food off the tables of nearly 700,000 people, many of whom struggle to find sufficient work.

The latest effort to curtail SNAP centers on new regulations that were set to take effect April 1. But in March, a judge blocked the rule, calling it "likely unlawful." 

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