Around the time then-President Donald Trump's administration launched the $6 billion "Farmers to Families Food Box Program" in April of 2020, Trump's daughter and senior White House advisor Ivanka Trump lauded the initiative as a victory for small American farmers and those families struggling with hunger in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We were very excited to be able to fight for the American farmer and rancher, which is so in the heart of this president," Trump told Gray Television during a visit to a Maryland produce wholesaler.
Now a new congressional investigation has found the program was plagued by mismanagement and funneled tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to unqualified firms with little oversight or follow-up, all while Trump's team touted the program's supposed benefits in support of his reelection campaign.
The 63-page report from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, released last week, explores in detail how the program doled out federal contracts to firms despite clear "red flags," failed to identify firms' fraudulent documents and possible instances of self-dealing, and implemented parts of the initiative which were "motivated solely by electoral considerations, with no evident programmatic purpose."
"The significant mismanagement of the Food Box Program illuminated by this report is yet another example of the previous Administration's failure to meet the needs of the American people as the coronavirus spread across the country," subcommittee chair Jim Clyburn (D-SC) said in a statement announcing the report's findings. "As we work to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and prepare for future emergencies, we must heed this report's lessons to prevent more instances of fraud and abuse and ensure that future relief efforts are more effective, efficient, and equitable."
Representatives for the former president did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the subcommittee's findings.
The initiative was first announced as part of the USDA's Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, a $19 billion federal relief effort for farmers, ranchers, and other Americans struggling to respond to the impact of the pandemic on the U.S. food supply. The idea was to connect small food producers and distributors with nonprofit and religious organizations to help them bring their products directly to consumers, as many of distributors' traditional clients, like restaurants and hotels, had closed, and millions of out-of-work families were struggling with hunger.
Barely a month after the announcement, however, the investigative outlet ProPublica revealed that several of the contractors tapped to implement the food box program lacked relevant experience and/or did not hold licenses to deal in fresh fruits and vegetables. The subcommittee's investigation was started later that summer, partially in response to that reporting.
The new report confirmed many of the allegations raised by the press at the time and uncovered some new ones. The investigation flagged three companies in particular who received multimillion-dollar contracts despite little or no experience in food distribution.
One company named CRE8AD8 LLC, pronounced "Create a Date," focused on wedding and event planning, and received $39.1 million despite lacking any significant experience in food distribution. According to the subcommittee, the company president told reporters and one of the nonprofit organizations involved in the effort that his company was qualified for the contract because the project was "just like" his usual work — "stuffing little tchotchkes into bags." He also told the subcommittee CRE8AD8 made between a 10 percent to 25 percent profit on those funds.
Another firm, Ben Holtz Consulting, was initially awarded a $40 million contract, the sixth-largest in the entire program. In the "References" section of the company's bid proposal, the applicant wrote: "I don't have any." The subcommittee also highlighted an "unusually broad" range in the company's proposed delivery capacity of between 5,000 to 200,000 boxes per week. Though the USDA quickly terminated the contract, the subcommittee questioned why Ben Holtz Consulting received it in the first place.
Also at issue was the Trump administration's failure to identify or respond to instances of contractors' alleged self-dealing, a type of fraud whereby companies funnel federal dollars intended for the program into their own pockets. The subcommittee pointed to one example in which Yegg Inc., a food distributor, upsold the government by over 150 percent of what it charged wholesalers — purchasing $13,000 worth of milk from a dairy but charging the USDA almost $21,000 for the delivery.
Among the most egregious allegations in the subcommittee's report were the ways in which Trump officials utilized the program to serve their political aims. The USDA required contractors involved in the initiative to include a letter signed by the former president in the boxes, noting how he "prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America." Beyond the problems with such an outward political appeal in a federal relief program, the subcommittee interviewed the head of the San Antonio Food Bank who pointed to the letter's cost as "an additional expense that could have gone into another tomato or onion."
The subcommittee further notes how Trump administration officials often treated events purportedly about the food box program as de facto campaign opportunities. In one speech announcing additional funding for the initiative, then-Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue implored those in attendance to "get out and vote" for Trump, remarks later found to have violated the Hatch Act, which prevents federal officials from engaging in political activity while conducting official business.
Few Trump officials were more vocal about the food box program than Ivanka, who in at least one instance brought reporters to watch her hand out some of the boxes herself. In the Gray Television interview, she was asked about concerns that some small food distributors chosen to participate would not be equipped to handle the project — concerns validated by the subcommittee's findings.
"For us, we view competition as a great thing," Trump said. "And to help some of these smaller distributors get access to markets and get product to those in need, we view as a very positive thing."
Shortly after he assumed office, President Joe Biden canceled the food box program, as reports continued to detail instances of spilled and spoiled food and uneven distribution.
But the trouble may not be over yet for the Trump administration officials involved in the original initiative. The USDA's inspector general is conducting her own investigation into the program, sure to face even greater scrutiny given the subcommittee's latest findings.
In a letter to the inspector general that shared his subcommittee's report, Clyburn requested that she "refer any evidence of fraud or other unlawful activities that it uncovers during its review to appropriate law enforcement authorities."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.