CHICAGO — Food pantries for months have relied on a government-sponsored food box program to serve a spike in needy families during the pandemic. But the latest batch of boxes includes an item some find unpalatable as the election nears: a letter signed by President Donald Trump.
The letter, printed in both English and Spanish on White House letterhead, highlights the Farmers to Families Food Box program and includes general safety information for preventing COVID-19 transmission.
It does not mention the Nov. 3 election, but some local food pantries say it’s inappropriate and plan to remove the letter before distributing the boxes to families.
“It is quite unethical and a misuse of government funds,” said Dr. Evelyn Figueroa, executive director of the Pilsen Food Pantry, which plans to remove the letter from the 200 boxes it expects to receive Wednesday. “I find it highly offensive that we have a letter in here that doesn’t add any value and to me it seems very self-promoting.”
In the letter, Trump says “safeguarding the health and well-being of our citizens is one of my highest priorities” and “I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America.”
Figueroa worries including the letter in the box can be construed as a political endorsement, which tax-exempt nonprofits are not allowed to make. The pantry has been distributing flyers encouraging people to vote and complete the Census, as well as general public health advice to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but those haven’t been connected to elected officials, she said.
The letter, which this week starting appearing in food boxes being distributed locally, is disappointing after the food box program has proved enormously helpful during the pandemic, especially in the early months when empty grocery store shelves led to a 20% drop in food donations, Figueroa said.
Similar concerns arose when Trump’s name was added to government stimulus checks sent out in April to allay the economic blow from the pandemic.
The $4 billion food box program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, gives contracts to distributors suffering from the closure of restaurants and hospitality businesses to purchase fresh food from farmers. The distributors package the food into family size boxes and distribute them to food pantries and other organizations helping to feed people during the pandemic. Nearly 100 million boxes have been sent since the program launched in May, according to the USDA.
The program has allowed the Pilsen pantry to provide consistent, high-quality fresh meat, dairy and produce to its clientele, which has grown to 1,000 families per month, from 700 before the pandemic, Figueroa said. It has received 200 boxes per week since May, but only the latest delivery included the letter.
A group of House Democrats in mid-August sent USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue a memo expressing “deep concerns” about “using a federal relief program to distribute a self-promoting letter from the President to American families” close to the election. They suggested the practice could violate the Hatch Act, which prohibits executive branch employees from engaging in some forms of political activities.
Asked to comment this week, the USDA said “politics has played zero role” in the food box program but did not directly address the decision to include the Trump-signed letters.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a statement when news of the letter broke in late July that “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.”
But some ethics experts are skeptical.
“It sure looks like political propaganda, and if its goal was to affect the presidential election, then it violates the Hatch Act,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
She added that the passage of the law was prompted by abuse of Depression-era federal relief programs to help ensure Democrats stayed in power, and “this letter seems like an echo of those past abuses.”
The Greater Chicago Food Depository, which is connecting approved vendors in the program with food pantries and other nonprofits helping feed communities throughout Cook County, said it recently learned that the vendors are required to include the letter in each box. The two vendors approved to serve Cook County in the third round of the food box program, which runs through October, are Produce Alliance in Chicago and Proffer Produce in Missouri.
While not overtly political, the letter is “inappropriate” coming five weeks before the general election, said spokesman Greg Trotter. The organization is advising its nonprofit partners that they are free to remove the letters before distributing the boxes.
At the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, CEO Carlos Nelson said he is disappointed the boxes include the letter, which “reeks of politics.”
The community group has relied on the food boxes as it distributes groceries to 1,000 families per week, a service it did not provide prior to the pandemic, when it was focused on housing and small business support. The demand has proved so great that the organization is establishing a temporary food pantry in the vacant former Save A Lot at 79th and Halsted streets.
The organization didn’t have the crew to remove the letters from the food boxes before distributing them Tuesday. Nelson said he expects to field angry calls as a result.
“I imagine that many people that take the time to read the letter will be angry and confused,” Nelson said.
But others don’t think food box recipients will pay the letter any mind.
At the Chosen Tabernacle church in Bronzeville, which receives 150 food boxes a week to distribute to neighborhood families, the Rev. Sandy Gillespie said she initially was “appalled” to learn of the letter, which she called “a shameless plug.”
But her group will not be removing the letters from the boxes before its Thursday distribution because it is too labor intensive and not worth the effort, she said.
The church, which has been engaged in get-out-the-vote efforts not only for the federal but also local and state elections, does not serve a community that would likely be swayed by perceived overtures by Trump, Gillespie said.
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