The Maryland Food Bank and its partner organizations have given out 6.5 million pounds of produce, dairy and meat to families in need through the federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program since late May, on top of its usual donations.
But food bank officials are criticizing a new addition to the boxes this week, which they view as politically motivated. With a month to go before the election, President Donald Trump’s administration began requiring contractors to enclose a letter on White House letterhead, in English and Spanish, signed by Trump.
It touts the 50 million food boxes delivered to families across the country in the past four weeks and encourages hand-washing and good hygiene, staying home if you feel sick, protecting the elderly and other vulnerable people, practicing social distancing and wearing a face covering.
“As President, safeguarding the health and well-being of our citizens is one of my highest priorities,” reads the letter from Trump, who announced around 1 a.m. Friday morning that he and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for the virus. “As part of our response to the coronavirus, I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America.”
It continues: “You and your loved ones are members of this great American family. This pandemic has brought many hardships on millions of hardworking individuals and communities through no fault of their own. We will support America’s recovery every step of the way. Together, we will overcome this challenge, and our Nation will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever before.”
Carmen Del Guercio, Maryland Food Bank’s president and CEO, called the letter “troubling” and questioned its appropriateness in a food assistance program. His concerns are similar to those Democrats raised when the White House sent out similar mailings with federal stimulus checks in April.
“We’ve been in this program since May and distributed close to 300,000 boxes without any letters,” Del Guercio said. “Just prior to an election, the letter pops up? It didn’t sit well with us. ... This is not [a Republican] or a [Democratic] issue. Our primary focus is on feeding people. Stay out of the realm of politics."
Trump’s message to needy families rang hollow, Del Guercio said, given his administration’s repeated efforts to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
“There’s been plenty of opportunities to support people in need before COVID,” he said. “The reality is that commitment has not been as evident leading up to this. What’s different is an opportunity for him to promote this program in an election cycle.”
White House spokeswoman Carolina Hurley denied any political motivation behind the letters, which she said began being distributed in July “when the idea came to fruition.”
“It’s not political to distribute important information to underserved communities (who often receive these boxes) about best COVID-19 practices,” Hurley said in an email.
The White House spokeswoman provided a statement from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the president’s coronavirus task force, endorsing the use of the food boxes to send public health advisories.
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“I support and applaud the innovative use of the Farmers to Families Food Box program to deliver essential public health messages related to COVID-19,” Fauci’s statement said.
Due to the sheer number of food boxes the Maryland Food Bank distributes, Del Guercio said, removing the letter from each one presents a logistical nightmare and could put the food at risk. Officials plan to distribute the boxes with the letters inside, “in an effort to continue to provide immediate relief to a doubling of demand for food assistance,” he said.
“Despite these troubling requirements ... we are committed to doing everything we can to provide those in need with access to nutritious food," Del Guercio said.
Because no U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines are in place for nonprofits and food pantries, however, the food bank will allow its partner organizations to decide whether to remove the letters, Del Guercio said.
Food bank officials briefed their partner organizations on the letter and their concerns about it in a conference call this week. It was not clear whether any of them plan to remove it when the latest batch of boxes reach them.
The food bank said the letter is going out to families in the final five weeks of the program, also known as the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which is set to end later this month.
Due to significantly increased demand, the Maryland Food Bank distributed more than 31 million pounds of food between March 1 and Aug. 31, nearly twice as much as in the same period the previous year.