A much-touted Trump administration food program that fed tens of thousands of residents across the state sputtered to an end this week, leaving families and organizations that help them scrambling for other options.
In some parts of the state, massive food deliveries ceased abruptly just before Christmas, though the program was supposed to run through Dec. 31. The funds set aside for Massachusetts had already been spent, the federal government said, contributing to the latest chaos for the troubled program.
“To run out of boxes a week and a half before the due date, and not to give organizations in hard-hit communities a heads-up, is really disrupting lives,” said Dinanyili Paulino, the chief operating officer of La Colaborativa, formerly known as the Chelsea Collaborative.
Paulino helps run a vast daily food distribution program that serves thousands of families in the area. Since the spring, La Colaborativa has relied on the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a US Department of Agriculture program launched during the pandemic.
But on Dec. 24, the delivery truck didn’t show up, Paulino said. There was no formal notice: She said she learned from the driver a few days later that no more deliveries were coming. Volunteers are now trying to purchase wholesale products and pack boxes, knowing they won’t be able to achieve the scale the federal government could. In the meantime, La Colaborativa had to announce it would not be distributing food for the rest of this week.
The phone keeps ringing, Paulino said, with residents asking where else to go.
Whitsons Culinary Group, which contracted with the USDA to distribute the most recent round of food boxes in the Northeast, said that in response to higher need in the area, it “depleted the total number of boxes allocated by the USDA more quickly,” and that some locations received their final deliveries last week because of the holiday and the short week. Whitsons said nonprofits were informed of the delivery schedules.
Farmers to Families had its share of problems before its rocky end. Launched in May, the $4.5 billion program was intended to buy up food from struggling farmers and provide it to hungry families through nonprofit partners. The food boxes typically contained about 15 pounds of fresh produce, milk, meat, and cheese, able to feed a family of four for a couple of days, Paulino said.
But federal funding for the program was slashed considerably as time went on, even as food needs continued to rise across the country.
“The amount of funding for the fourth round was about one-third of the total available in previous rounds, which resulted in some non-profits being unable to participate and some deliveries completing prior to December 31,” a spokesman for the USDA said in a statement.
The timing of the program’s ending is particularly challenging for unemployed families facing the holiday week without groceries.
“It’s cruel,” said Representative Jim McGovern, who coauthored a letter to the USDA in early December, expressing concern that the region’s need far outmatched the program’s capacity. The Trump administration “did this because they thought it would look good. But they were not interested in making sure the program was run seamlessly.”
Even early on, lawmakers had concerns. The Northeast region received just 4 percent of the $1.2 billion allocated for food distribution nationally in the first round, according to an earlier letter McGovern and Representative Ayanna Pressley sent to the USDA. Then in the fourth round, the USDA switched the state’s distributor from Boston-based Costa Fruit & Produce to Whitsons, based in New York. Many local organizations stopped receiving food boxes then.
“Almost overnight, so many organizations that were distributing food — which historically weren’t in the business of getting food but had been getting it through this program — just didn’t have access to food anymore,” said Catherine Drennan, a spokeswoman for the Greater Boston Food Bank.
Whitsons said that although the network of nonprofits was different than in previous rounds, “all food boxes went to people in need.”
Even for groups that continued receiving deliveries, there were complications. Without federal funding for the program, aid organizations across the country began running out of food early this month, according to The Washington Post. In Massachusetts, the final weeks of the program were spotty, nonprofit leaders said.
“I got dribs and drabs the last week and a half. It’s nowhere near the volume we were doing,” said Don Cox, the president of the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation, which runs a major food distribution program for veteran families across the state.
With the help of the USDA, Cox said, the group was able to distribute more than 20,000 boxes of food a week across the state since March. Without the USDA boxes, they’re attempting to create their own, on a much smaller scale.
As many as one in seven people in the state are considered food insecure, according to the Greater Boston Food Bank. Overall, the food-insecurity rate in Massachusetts has increased by 59 percent since 2018, the highest percent increase in the country.
The size of the need is so great, local leaders said, that even generous individual efforts can’t satisfy it.
“It isn’t always the canned food from someone’s pantry that helps. It’s the mass, standardized food that helps people a lot more,” said Captain Kevin Johnson, who runs the Lynn Salvation Army and said he received the last delivery of USDA food boxes a few days before Christmas. Through the program, hundreds of pre-made boxes arrived every week, already packed with milk, meat, and produce — an effort that would take hours of volunteer work to replicate.
Johnson said the nonprofit, which serves an average of 300 families per day, is not distributing food boxes this week, because they don’t have them.
“I’m frustrated,” he said, “that we don’t have enough resources to help as many families as we could.”