Along with apples and precooked pork, hunger fighters across America who distribute boxes of food from the federal government to those in need are discovering something unexpected inside each one: a letter from President Donald Trump.
The letter, signed by the president, says, “I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to our families in need throughout America.”
The so-called Coronavirus Food Assistance Program emergency food boxes are part of an effort to dispense food to help those hurt by the pandemic. They are also referred to as Farmers to Families Food Boxes.
Food bank leaders are blasting Trump, saying he is politicizing hunger. At Philabundance, one of the two main hunger-relief agencies in the Philadelphia region, the letter is being pulled from boxes before they reach recipients.
“In its place, we are offering information about voter registration or other services that might be useful for our clients," said Loree Jones, CEO of Philabundance.
Calling the letter “absolutely outrageous,” Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, headquartered in New York City, said: "It essentially blackmails nonpartisan food charities into aiding Trump’s reelection campaign by threatening more Americans to go hungry if these food boxes are not distributed.
"This move by the Trump administration is illegal and immoral.”
Sociologist Joan Maya Mazelis of Rutgers University-Camden said she was “shocked” by the letter, which flies in the face of Trump administration policy. The president tried on three occasions to cut food stamps, and declined to sign a proposed 15% increase in food stamps — now known as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — due to the coronavirus.
“People might think the president is for expanding their access to food as opposed to decreasing it, and that strikes me as particularly dishonest,” Mazelis said. “And it doesn’t help people who are really suffering.”
Food need in the region and across America is estimated to have increased 60% since the pandemic hit, experts say.
The boxes — each weighing 35 pounds and typically containing produce, dairy products, and meats — were developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the start of the pandemic, when Americans overwhelmingly purchased shelf-stable goods, and restaurants were forced to close. That left farmers with fresh food languishing in their fields and silos.
The government was then able to aid farmers by buying their yields and sharing them with those in need, paying out around $3 billion, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. The first deliveries of boxes were in May.
It does not appear that Trump’s letter became part of the shipments until recently, anti-hunger advocates said.
In North Philadelphia on Thursday, Thelma Kennerly, who provides meals to those in need at Devereux Methodist Church, accused Trump of “playing politics with people suffering from hunger.”
“It’s a political move," she added. "I’m sorry. I don’t believe he’s for the small man.”
In his letter, Trump said that “safeguarding the health and well-being of our citizens is one of my highest priorities.” He added that his administration has delivered 50 million boxes across America in the last month.
Trump also suggested recipients wash their hands, practice social distancing, “and consider wearing a face covering when in public.”
Many people around Philadelphia began discovering the letter last weekend, according to Tracey Specter, chair of the board of directors of Share Food Program, the largest hunger-relief agency in the region. Specter is the daughter-in-law of the late Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched between the Democratic and Republican Parties in his career.
“They were calling in angry from all over the counties,” said Specter, a Republican who is supporting Joe Biden for president. “And it was pretty rotten that Share was put in the uncomfortable position of giving out food to a vulnerable population in a very politicized situation.”
Share distributes 42,000 pounds of food a week in CFAP boxes, said George Matysik, Share’s executive director. Philabundance reported that it gave out nearly 580,000 pounds of CFAP boxes between May 18 and Sept. 28.
That the boxes contain messages from the president is worrying for Temple University sociologist Judith Levine.
“My biggest concern is now that the letters are required to be in the boxes, some groups might refuse to accept the boxes,” she said. “It may force some food banks to reject the boxes, and aid that would have gotten into needy people’s hands would be lost.”
Levine, who’s the director of Temple’s Public Policy Lab, added that “the fact that the letter is now in the boxes while people are starting to vote for president seems like it’s related to the election.”
She said that she has “not seen reports anywhere that say anyone thinks the letter is a good idea.”
Some observers said the boxed letter reminds people of Trump’s move in April to have his name printed on the economic stimulus checks sent out across the country.
In Congress, Democratic legislators are accusing the administration of violating the Hatch Act by sending out the letter. Its main provision prohibits civil-service employees in the executive branch of the federal government, except the president and vice president, from electioneering. Legislators are suggesting that the USDA may be in violation of the rule.
Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said Thursday that the Trump letter implies that the president gifted the nation with the food boxes, when it came from work done by “both sides of the aisle in Congress as part of the CARES Act” to help Americans suffering because of COVID-19.
“Hunger affects people no matter what party you’re in, and, certainly now with the pandemic, hunger is in every zip code,” Fisher said.
“In the past, food aid had not been as politicized as it is now. It’s become ridiculous.”