By Guy Page
A spokesperson for Sen. Bernie Sanders confirmed Wednesday that his office is responsible for seeking to change the instate distribution process for the federal Farmers to Families food boxes.
Tuesday, March 2, a Vermont pastor whose church had enthusiastically delivered 150-180 boxes per week during February reported that due to intervention by Sanders’ office, the instate distribution would be overseen by the Vermont Food Bank, and his church’s all-volunteer services were no longer required.
Later that day, Vermont Daily emailed this question to Sen. Sanders’ office: “I’ve been corresponding with a church leader in Vermont who says your office excluded churches from farm to family foodbox distribution and gave it to the Food Bank. Is this true? Can you provide some helpful information and context?”
March 3, Vermont Daily received this answer from Sanders’ State Director Kathryn Van Haste, via email from Communications Director Kate Farley:
“It was absolutely unacceptable that the most recent round of the federally-funded Farmers to Families Food Box Program (F2F) failed to meet the needs of hungry Vermonters across our state, leaving behind nearly 250 towns and hundreds of Vermont families. In these uncertain times, it is absolutely critical that struggling Vermont families be able to count on the federal relief they were promised. We addressed these distribution problems directly with the USDA, working with the Vermont Foodbank to build a statewide food distribution network made up of a diverse group of local partners, including churches. Together, they have successfully implemented the program and are meeting the needs of hungry Vermonters in every corner of our state.
“We are grateful for these important efforts and encourage any Vermonter who needs food help to contact the Vermont Foodbank for details about a food box delivery near them. To all those who have joined in this effort to make sure no Vermonter goes hungry – thank you and keep up the great work.”
Vermont Daily followed up with two more emailed questions, as yet unanswered: “How do you know about the 250 unserved towns? Where did that figure come from? Also – was any attempt made to rectify the distribution problems with the former vendor?” A phone message for Farley was left at Sanders’ office in Burlington this morning.
The Farmers to Families (F2F) Food Box Program was begun by the Trump administration to fight pandemic-related food insecurity. Faith-based organizations were welcome to participate. Last month, many churches did.
But they won’t be participating (at no cost) this month or next because the Vermont Congressional delegation in a Feb. 12 letter to US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack denigrated the distribution effort and asked him to “open the contract for rebidding for March and April.” The Congressional delegation claims GTE vastly underserved the Vermont population, “delivering boxes to only seven locations in the entirety of our rural state, in just five of the state’s 14 counties. This will leave nearly 250 towns, and hundreds Vermont families, without the food assistance they were promised under this federal program.”
The letter does not indicate any effort to work with GTE to address the specified problem, or to include current in-state distributors.
Instead: “In selecting a bidder, we ask that USDA take into account past performance of vendors and prioritize those with a proven track record of successful implementation of the program and those with existing local partnerships and distribution networks.”
The changeover came quickly. Food-filled tractor-trailers sent to faith-based groups across Vermont in February are this month headed for the Vermont Food Bank – an organization specifically mentioned in the Sanders/Leahy/Welch letter.
The Vermont Food Bank does have a long, excellent record of distributing food to the needy. Vermont churches wish to “keep up the great work” of distributing food boxes to needy neighbors.
Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said at today’s press conference the distribution program was not reaching enough people. He said he welcomes volunteers who want to participate and urged them to contact him. His office can be contacted via email or by phone at (802) 241-0440. The physical address is: 280 State Drive, Waterbury, VT 05671-1080. No-one has reached out to him yet, Smith said.