Last fall, the Trump administration came under fire for requiring that letters signed by the president be included in food boxes distributed through a federal pandemic aid program. Two emails recently obtained by American Oversight and the Union of Concerned Scientists through the Freedom of Information Act offer further evidence of the political aims of the letters and provide another window into the role that Ivanka Trump, who was credited with the idea, played in getting the letters included.
The Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box program began distribution in May of last year. But the program, which the Biden administration plans to end, encountered numerous problems related to distribution and cost in addition to concerns that it was being improperly politicized by the administration during an election year.
In July, Fox News first reported that the boxes would come with a letter, signed by the president, that included basic Covid-19 guidelines alongside ample self-praise from then-President Donald Trump. The administration started requiring in late September that the letters be added to packages, weeks before the presidential election and a month after USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue also took heat for calling for Trump’s reelection during an event promoting the food program in North Carolina.
The new records released to American Oversight include an email about the letters from Ivanka Trump’s assistant Julie Radford, sent to Perdue’s chief of staff Joby Young on June 16, 2020. “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,” Radford wrote, under the subject line “Letter – F2F.”
Notably, Radford’s email indicates that the idea to include Covid-19 guidance in the letter came from elsewhere, suggesting that the original intent was likely politically motivated. Then-White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx “also had an idea about putting COVID guidance in each box as the people that are receiving these boxes are the most vulnerable,” Radford wrote.
The second email obtained by American Oversight shows Rachel Craddock, special assistant to Ivanka Trump, sharing the agenda and background for the Aug. 24 North Carolina event promoting the program. The preparation materials noted that Trump in the previous weeks had “included a letter to reinforce CDC guidelines thus continuing his leadership in helping protect the health and safety of all Americans.” The U.S. Office of Special Counsel later found that Perdue violated the Hatch Act at this event by using it to promote Trump’s reelection campaign as well.
(Notably, while the event advisory indicates that masks were required, a White House video shows the president, Ivanka Trump, Perdue, and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows not wearing a mask during the indoor portion of the event.)
The addition of the Trump letter created headaches for groups that were worried about appearing to engage in political activity. The program also faced other issues. Reporting suggested some contractors billed the government unusually high rates for the boxes. Invoice data from October through December reviewed by Reuters showed that seven of 105 suppliers charged the government twice the program’s median price per found of food, with the Trump administration giving three of those companies nearly $32 million in contracts in January. Distribution challenges also mounted, as inexperienced partners struggled to get boxes to families and some religious organizations appeared to blur the line between church and state.
A prior investigation into the Farmers to Families program by American Oversight and Public Citizen suggested that the meat industry may have been pitched the program to the government as a way to avoid costs associated with repackaging surplus food service inventory for retail sale.
American Oversight will continue to pursue accountability for pandemic-related programs and policies. Please visit our Covid-19 Oversight Hub for more information about our investigations.