MHC’s Statement on Trump Administration Food Box Letter

 

In the wake of COVID-19, 1 in 6 Americans are experiencing hunger, compared to the 1 in 9 who were food insecure before 2020. In response, the Federal government began implementing the Farmers to Families Food Box Program in May. The program closely mirrors the existing emergency food system; the USDA purchases food from farmers and distributors, combines the array of items into household-sized boxes, and transports those boxes to organizations and groups serving Americans in need, who in turn distribute them directly to community members. Each box contains fresh produce, dairy, and meat products. 

 

The most recent round of boxes, distributed less than a month before the election, included a letter from the White House. The letter, written in English and Spanish, takes a first-person tone. In it, President Trump claims credit for partnering with farmers, and for connecting communities with the food. He asserts that “safeguarding the health and well-being of our citizens is one of my highest priorities.” At the Hub, when we started receiving boxes with the letters in early October, we made the decision to take the letters out before distributing. 

 

We made this choice because we firmly believe that access to healthy food is a basic human right. Living with that value means that we work to increase access, not limit it. That we never put stipulations or conditions on accessing food. And that we don’t use food distribution as a political tool, for partisan messaging, or with ulterior motives. The inclusion of the letter by the Trump administration violated all of these standards. Including it had the potential to suggest that we are a partisan organization, to imply that community members needed to agree with the message in the box to receive it, and to alienate patrons with a range of views from coming to get groceries. On a legal level, the inclusion of the letters by the administration & the USDA arguably constitutes a violation of the Hatch Act - a rule that prohibits Federal agencies & employees from campaigning. On an ethical level, including the letter shows a willingness to wield basic human needs as political leverage - something that the United States has long condemned as immoral elsewhere in the world.

 

Beyond the values-based reasons we removed the letter, as a 501c3, we are prohibited from participating in any political campaigning on behalf of candidates for elective public office. As the letters were distributed in an election year with an actively-campaigning candidates’ signature, we decided that distributing the letters would hold us in violation of our non-profit status from an ethical, if not legal, standpoint. The USDA and the White House knew that the bulk of the Farmers to Families Food Boxes would be distributed by non-profits. The addition of the letters, regardless of that knowledge, either signals negligence in not considering the legal dilemma this would create for organizations, or a gross ethical violation in knowing and asking them to do it anyway. 

 

In the aftermath of the election - regardless of its outcome - it will be tempting to say that this issue is resolved. That the inclusion of the letters was only an issue in an election year. That nonprofits and communities have nothing to fear from elected officials & government policies. That the Farmers to Families Food Box program may cease to exist soon anyway. But the grim reality is that the damage is both already done and ongoing. Abuse of power will continue without stronger accountability measures and a more equitable, representative democracy. Lost trust between communities, organizations, and government entities can’t be rebuilt overnight. And until the Right to Food is guaranteed at a national level, access to food will always carry the risk of being leveraged for political gain. 

For additional information and resources, see below: 

Published: 11/4/20

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