Food Share pop-up pantries are drive-thru only, so they can be as low-touch as possible, officials said.
Ventura County Star
Thousands of boxes of food given out to families in Ventura County over the past few days included something unexpected and, at least in some cases, unwanted.
The boxes, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families program, included a letter from the White House and signed by President Trump.
A little over a month before the election, some have called it politicking. While it may not violate the law, they say it does politicize a nonpolitical program.
In response, some food pantries or nonprofits around the country have opened the boxes and removed the letter before handing them out. Others have said they don’t have the time or personnel to do so.
Crime: Police dogs, helicopter take part in Santa Paula search after suspects flee to river bottom
In Ventura County, the first boxes in the third phase of the program started going out this week and complaints started coming in quickly after that, said Food Share CEO Monica White. Earlier phases did not contain the materials.
After the initial 200 boxes in this phase went out, Food Share added its own letter explaining why the one from the president was included in the box and telling people it was not put there by the local nonprofit.
“The companies that pack the USDA boxes, as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, must include the letter in all of the boxes they distribute as part of their contract with the USDA,” the letter states.
This photo shows one of the boxes with the letter signed by President Trump inside. (Photo: Courtesy of Food Share)
It goes on to say that Food Share of Ventura County is not a government agency and does not approve or endorse any political candidates.
“We didn’t put it in there. That’s really the bottom line,” White said about the letter. “We are simply distributing boxes that are received through a USDA program. The distributor was required to put the letter in there.”
Food Share doesn’t have the personnel to remove the letters, White said. It gets hundreds of pallets, each holding dozens of already packed boxes of milk, chicken, yogurt, cheese and other grocery items.
“It is just not feasible with perishable food,” she said.
Required by contract
Along with information about hand-washing and social distancing during the pandemic, the letter from the White House says the president prioritized sending the food to families.
“We will support America’s recovery every step of the way,” it states. “Together, we will overcome this challenge, and our Nation will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever before.”
White House officials have said criticism is unmerited, saying the president is only trying to distribute information to help Americans.
Because the text is not explicitly political, it does not appear to break the law, said Tim Allison, an adjunct political science professor at CSU Channel Islands. But it’s still questionable.
“From a perception standpoint, this looks terrible,” he said. “But from a legal standpoint, I don’t see anything that rises to the level of having broken the law.”
The boxes delivered to Food Share come from a company called Vesta Foodservices, which got a contract to distribute boxes to counties in California, Nevada and Arizona. The company with facilities in Northern and Southern California also participated in the earlier phases of the program as well.
The letter and a sticker for the boxes was sent out to distributors during the first two rounds, but it was not required to be included, said Brette Waters, speaking on behalf of Vesta.
At the time, Vesta made the decision not to include the letter or put the sticker on its boxes, she said.
Coronavirus in California: Food Share gets $855K boost from taxpayers to handle virus-related demand for meals
55,000 boxes, five weeks
But after contracts were awarded for the third round in September, distributors were told they were required to include the letter and sticker, said Waters, executive director of the nonprofit Chefs to End Hunger, which was founded by Vesta.
“As a company we do not make political endorsements, and we certainly did not feel aligned with putting a letter from President Trump in our boxes when given the choice not to,” she said. “But when it became a contractual obligation, we are obligated to honor our contract.”
Food Share expects to hand out 55,000 boxes over the next five weeks, according to White.
The regional food bank continues to see record numbers of people needing food, she said.
“The frustrating part about all of this is that we, as a food bank, we’re doing our job of getting this food out to people,” White said. “But we’re not getting a dime from the government for this program.”
The contract went to the distributors, which received funding to put the boxes together, she said.
“The fact that we may get blasted for these letters in these boxes is unfortunate. All we’re trying to do is just feed people,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to me, that if anything negative comes to Food Share because of this, it’s going in the wrong direction.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Cheri Carlson covers the environment for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at [email protected] or 805-437-0260.
Read or Share this story: https://www.vcstar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/02/food-share-ventura-countny-responds-food-boxes-including-letter-signed-trump-usda/5889635002/