A signed letter from Trump is being included in food-aid boxes. Nonprofits feel conflicted.

Mackensy Lunsford, Asheville Citizen Times
·4 min read

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Round three of the USDA's Farmers to Families Food Box program came with an extra addition among the fruit: a signed letter from President Donald Trump.

The letter, printed in English and Spanish, described the millions of food-aid boxes delivered to doorsteps as part of the White House coronavirus response.

"As President, safeguarding the health and well-being of our citizens is one of my highest priorities," it said.

The USDA has required all Coronavirus Food Assistance Program-contract vendors responsible for packing the boxes to include the letter, though it does not require nonprofit distributors to do the same.

A fleet of MANNA FoodBank's delivery trucks at their distribution center December 17, 2019.
A fleet of MANNA FoodBank's delivery trucks at their distribution center December 17, 2019.

Nonprofits, which are obligated under federal tax law to operate as nonpartisan ventures to maintain their tax-exempt status, are worried that either removing or distributing the letter could be viewed as a political statement.

"It leaves them between a rock and a hard place," said MANNA FoodBank CEO Hannah Randall, who added that neither she nor the nonprofit she manages take a partisan stance.

When MANNA began receiving the letter-loaded boxes by the pallet full, the nonprofit contacted the legal council at Feeding America, a vast network of hunger-fighting organizations, for guidance.

"They informed us that it's not a violation of our nonprofit status to distribute the letters in food boxes, since the letter is related to its purpose," said Randall.

But Randall acknowledged that given the looming election, many other organizations were alarmed at the potentially partisan nature of the letter, and whether distributing it to clients could be seen as a political endorsement.

MANNA, a nonprofit distributing food to more than 200 partner agencies in 16 Western North Carolina counties, didn't have time to deliberate.

"It's not feasible for us to deconstruct, then reconstruct, the food boxes," said Randall.

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'A loaded thing'

Randall said MANNA left partner organizations to decide at their own discretion what to do with the letter, though she shared with them Feeding America's advice.

"But we did understand that concern," Randall said. "This is a loaded thing either way; advising people to remove it could be viewed as partisan, and advising people to keep it could be viewed as partisan."

President Donald Trump is introduced to give remarks after touring Flavor 1st Growers and Packers, a farmer-owned produce packing plant in Mills River, on Aug. 24, 2020.
President Donald Trump is introduced to give remarks after touring Flavor 1st Growers and Packers, a farmer-owned produce packing plant in Mills River, on Aug. 24, 2020.

Randall said MANNA's focus is singular: to help lend assistance to some of the millions of people who have come up short on needed nutrition since the pandemic began.

The Asheville, North Carolina, based organization and its partners served 115,000 individuals in September alone, up 73% from pre-pandemic numbers and a nearly 25% uptick in needed assistance since August.

"We can't do this alone," she said.

The Farmers to Families Food Box and assistance from the CARES Act, as well as a surge of volunteers in Western North Carolina, have all helped mitigate the unprecedented need for food this year, she said.

"So we appreciate the government's invaluable help in this crisis so far, and there's much more that needs to be done to help meet increased demand," Randall said.

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which reimbursed farmers for the products it distributed to families in need, stands to end Oct. 31.

Though the program has had its challenges, including a range of different vendors and an array of rule changes, the net benefit has been one for good, Randall said.

"It's been a good mix of food, and just as important it's helped lift up the agricultural community and farmers," she said. "If we don't have a healthy, sustainable food system, we have all kinds of problems."

Hatch Act violations

However, this isn't the first time the Trump administration and some events surrounding its Farmers to Families program have been accused of political theater.

President Donald Trump gives remarks after landing at the Asheville Regional Airport in North Carolina on Marine One on Aug. 24, 2020.
President Donald Trump gives remarks after landing at the Asheville Regional Airport in North Carolina on Marine One on Aug. 24, 2020.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, investigating a complaint by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has ordered Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to reimburse the U.S. Treasury for expenses related to an Aug. 24 visit to Mills River, North Carolina.

The OSC concluded Oct. 8 that Perdue violated the Hatch Act in a speech directed to the president, whose motorcade to a Mills River produce packing company was greeted by throngs of supporters.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, addresses the crowd after touring Flavor 1st Growers and Packers, a farmer-owned produce packing plant in Mills River, with President Donald Trump on Aug. 24, 2020.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, addresses the crowd after touring Flavor 1st Growers and Packers, a farmer-owned produce packing plant in Mills River, with President Donald Trump on Aug. 24, 2020.

"They and many others are going to vote for you for four more years in 2020," Purdue said. "Because they understand, under your administration, they’ve not been forgotten. And this (Farmers to Families Food Box Program) is a great example of that."

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees, except for the president and vice president, from engaging in political activities while on duty.

"As the Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary Perdue is covered by the Hatch Act and prohibited from, among other things, using his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election," the OSC found.

Reach reporter Mackensy Lunsford at mlunsford@citizentimes.com.

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This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Trump letter in USDA Farmers to Families Food Box muddles nonprofits