USDA Couldn’t Analyze Food Box Program’s Performance In Hitting Goals

While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was able to determine that the Farmers to Families Food Box Program met its goal of providing food to those in need, the agency could not analyze the program’s performance in meeting its other two goals, helping contractors (i.e., distributors) retain jobs, and helping food producers faced with declining demand, according to a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) study released earlier this month.
USDA and GAO analyses of delivery data suggest the Food Box Program largely met its goal to provide food to those in need. Specifically, USDA analyzed data on food box deliveries to track the number of food boxes delivered to recipient organizations in each state, and determined from this analysis that the program met its goal of providing food to those in need.
The GAO’s analysis of the delivery data, which included assessing deliveries to high-poverty counties, suggests that the Food Box Program met USDA’s secondary goals related to providing food to those in need. The GAO analyzed data as of June 4, 2021, and found that contractors delivered millions of boxes of food to recipient organizations distributed across most US counties, including nearly all high-poverty counties, or counties in which 20 percent or more of the population lives in poverty.
Specifically, the GAO found that accross the five rounds of the Food Box Program, contractors delivered more than 176 million food boxes to primary recipient organizations in 2,507 out of the 3,220 counties (77.9 percent) in the US. However, these primary recipient organizations could distribute food boxes in different locations, including different counties, so the number of counties in which food boxes were distributed to individuals may be higher.
Also, contractors delivered food boxes to recipient organizations in 345 of the 386 high-poverty counties, the study said.
USDA collected data related to contractors that enabled the GAO to analyze and describe contractor participation, contract obligations, prices of individual food boxes from different contractors, and food box delivery rates.
243 contractors participated in at least one of the five rounds of the Food Box Program. The majority of contractors (160) participated in two rounds of the program.
According to the GAO’s analysis, across the five rounds, the largest contract obligation to a contractor was $310 million and the smallest was $7,700. The mean contract obligation across all five rounds was $24.2 million per contractor.
Of the 243 contractors who participated in the program, 21 contractors, or less than 10 percent, received more than 50 percent of the program’s total obligations. Specifically, across all five rounds of the program, USDA obligated a total of about $3 billion to these 21 contractors.
The prices for an individual food box varied widely among contractors, the study found. For example, dairy boxes ranged from $5.00 to $93.60 each (Round 1 dairy contract obligations totaled $140.2 million, while Round 2 dairy contract obligations totaled $231.1 million), while milk boxes ranged from $1.35 to $35.05 each (Round 1 milk contract obligations totaled $95.6 million, while Round 2 milk contract obligations totaled $111.5 million).
For the first two rounds, USDA permitted distribution of boxes consisting of only fresh fruits, dairy, fruit and vegetables, precooked meat, milk, or a combination. For the third through fifth rounds, however, USDA provided contracts only for combination boxes.
USDA did not systematically collect and analyze data from contractors that would allow it to quantitatively assess the program’s performance related to its key program goal of helping contractors with job retention, the study said. However, USDA stated that, according to anecdotal information agency staff collected, contractors that participated in rounds 1 and 2 experienced fewer job losses than they otherwise would have without the program.
USDA also did not systematically collect and analyze data about producers necessary to assess the extent to which the Food Box Program achieved its goal of supporting producers. USDA officials provided multiple reasons for not systematically collecting and analyzing this data.
The GAO recommends that USDA apply the lesson learned from the Food Box Program regarding collecting and analyzing data to assess program goals to current and future emergency food assistance programs. USDA agreed

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