House Pandemic Subcommittee Investigates Trump Administration’s Use of Food Box Program for Political Gain

The majority staff of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis published a report on Oct. 13 examining the Trump administration’s Farmers to Families Food Box program. The report cites records obtained by American Oversight that suggest the administration attempted to leverage the program for the former president’s electoral advantage

The food box program, which began distribution in May 2020, provided meals to Americans in need during the pandemic but suffered from mismanagement and other problems related to cost and distribution. The House investigation found that the Department of Agriculture awarded multimillion-dollar contracts to unqualified companies, failed to monitor the program for fraud and abuse, and used the program for political gain. Glimpses of those political motivations are apparent in records released to American Oversight in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Just six weeks before the 2020 presidential election, the federal government mandated that each food box contain a letter written and signed by President Trump. According to records obtained by American Oversight and cited by the House subcommittee, on Sept. 17, program contractors were told via email, “the attached letter must be included in all food boxes being distributed.” The letter, signed by Trump, said, “I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America.”

The letters drew fierce criticism that taxpayer dollars were being used to bolster Trump’s reelection campaign, and left nonprofit distributors that are required to remain nonpartisan in a difficult position.

The idea for the letter was credited to Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a top adviser. In a June 16, 2020, email to then Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s chief of staff, which was cited by the subcommittee in its report, Ivanka Trump’s assistant Julie Radford wrote: “Ivanka touched base with me this morning about the […] idea of getting a letter from POTUS in every food box that’s delivered — she had raised this previously with the Secretary I believe. Can we get that going?”

Radford also wrote that White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx had separately suggested the letter include guidance to protect against Covid-19, indicating that the sharing of public health information was not the primary impetus for the letters.

Other actions taken by the administration also suggest officials used the program to score political points. In an email sent later that summer, Ivanka Trump’s assistant Rachel Craddock shared the agenda for an Aug. 24 event in North Carolina promoting the program. At the event, which took place on the first day of the Republican National Convention (which included some events in Charlotte, N.C., the convention’s original host city), Trump announced $1 billion in additional funding for Farmers to Families. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel later found that Perdue violated the Hatch Act at this event by promoting Trump’s reelection campaign in his capacity as USDA head. 

In interviews with the subcommittee, local food bank operators said that many food box recipients found the letter to be “insulting” or “inappropriate.” Advocates wondered whether resources could have gone to improving the program itself.

In 2020, American Oversight requested records from USDA that could identify the costs of planning, printing, and distributing the letters from Trump, but the agency claimed it could locate no relevant records.

The House report also included case studies of three contracts that USDA entered into with Yegg Inc., CRE8AD8, and Ben Holtz Consulting. According to the report, all three companies had limited experience and lacked capacity to carry out the distribution program. There were also major red flags in their bid proposals — when asked to list references, Ben Holtz wrote, “I don’t have any.” Yegg was not properly monitored for fraudulent activities, was found to have possibly submitted false documentation, and was entangled in troubling conflicts of interest. In addition, both CRE8AD8 and Yegg were profiting steeply from price gouging. In total, these companies were awarded $95.7 million in taxpayer money in contracts. 

On Oct. 13, the subcommittee sent a letter to the USDA inspector general, asking the office to conduct a review of the Farmers to Families program to identify possible fraud and reclaim wasted taxpayer funds. 

While the Farmers to Families program aimed to serve the admirable goal of reducing food waste, supporting farmers, and feeding hungry families during an economic crisis, the initiative suffered from mismanagement and a lack of oversight, and was manipulated by the former president’s political motivations.

For more information on American Oversight’s pursuit of accountability in pandemic-related programs and policies, visit our Covid-19 Oversight Hub.

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