Last minute electioneering: A box of food and a letter from the president

Every box of food delivered to some low-income households comes with a letter from President Donald Trump. Screen shot from Reddit.

A man who says he lives in north Minneapolis claimed his whole neighborhood received a free box of food from the federal government, complete with a letter from President Donald Trump.

In late September, the federal government began mandating the letters be included in boxes of surplus food given out to help people through the pandemic — a requirement that for some carried a whiff of the neighborhood Don giving away Christmas hams. 

Even more curious, some people say they aren’t on any government program that would land a box of food on their doorstep.  

That’s what a man on Reddit claims happened. He says he lives in the Cleveland neighborhood of north Minneapolis — where his “whole neighborhood” received boxes — but he isn’t enrolled in the food program. He wrote he feels like “we were targeted to try and buy votes. Of course Trump sent a letter with it to make sure we knew it was his ‘good’ deed.”

The Reformer could not verify widespread food distribution to the Cleveland neighborhood to those not on government programs, but there’s no doubt that many needy families are getting a letter from the president with their box of food.  

The USDA started the “Farmers to Families Food Box Program” in April to take pandemic-induced surplus food that would normally go to restaurants and schools and give it to needy families. There were two rounds of the program, from May to June and July to August, during which there was no letter from Trump for the 100 million food boxes that went out.

For the third round of boxes, September through October, the Trump administration directed that those boxes include a letter with Trump’s famous signature saying safeguarding the health and well-being of citizens is one of his top priorities.  

“As part of our response to coronavirus, I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America,” he wrote. (Or someone wrote, anyway.)

Some food shelves and nonprofits saw the letter edict as an attempt to curry favor with voters on the eve of the election, a way to help his cash-strapped campaign. 

Trump’s also insisted that his signature be stamped on stimulus checks distributed as part of the CARES Act earlier in the pandemic (a first for the IRS). He also announced a suprise plan — it may never happen — to rush $200 discount cards to seniors to offset drug costs, which Democrats say is an obvious attempt to buy votes. And, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is spending $300 million on an advertising campaign that seeks to spin a sunny story about the administration’s pandemic response.

Those food boxes have now arrived in Minnesota, but not all of them will contain the letter by the time they’re delivered to people. A spokeswoman for the state of Minnesota Department of Human Services, which oversees food programs, directed questions to Second Harvest Heartland — one of the nation’s largest food banks and which handles the bulk of distribution of the food boxes, covering 59 Minnesota counties and a portion of western Wisconsin. They’ve distributed more than 300,000 food boxes since the program began.

Second Harvest said the USDA is requiring all contractors that fill the food boxes to include the letter before shipping them to food banks like Second Harvest, which then ships the boxes to its partners. Lawyers for the national nonprofit Feeding America looked at the issue, however, and decided including the letter doesn’t violate nonprofits’ tax status or the Hatch Act, since it’s related to the program’s purpose.

(The Hatch Act bans officials from using government resources for partisan activities, but the Trump administration has repeatedly flouted the rarely enforced law, most infamously during the Republican National Convention that culminated on the White House lawn.)

“Its inclusion so close to the election” the nonprofit’s lawyers wrote, ”is causing concern among some members of Congress and organizations.” 

The nonprofits are not legally required to keep the letter in the boxes once they receive them. Only problem is, they’re usually at the bottom of the boxes, and they have better things to do than fish them out of every box, Second Harvest said.

Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, said in a prepared statement, “Our mission leaves no room for politics. This is a distraction from our efforts to feed the surging population of hungry folks in our community. If we take our eye off the ball for even a half a day to focus on this letter, we are not moving food and we are leaving people hungry longer than they need to be.”

Second Harvest was not aware of the boxes landing on doorsteps of north Minneapolis residents who were not expecting them. It’s possible a good Samaritan would give their box away, or a nonprofit didn’t give them all away and decided to give them to a needy neighborhood. 

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