Agriculture Spending: Opportunities Exist for USDA to Identify Successes and Challenges of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program to Inform Future Efforts
COVID-19 led to food supply disruptions. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began buying about $3 billion in fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meat; packaging the food in family-sized boxes; and transporting it to food banks and other organizations within weeks. The USDA delivered more than 74 million boxes from May 15 to Aug 27.
The USDA divided the initial funding into three rounds of spending and is about to start the third. But the agency hasn't yet evaluated what worked and what didn't to inform a possible extension of the program or future efforts. We recommended that it evaluate the program after the third round.
What GAO Found
Under the new Farmers to Families Food Box Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continued to spend funds for food purchases for redistribution to food banks, nonprofits, and other entities. The program was developed in weeks to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused disruptions in the U.S. food supply chain, including the closure of institutions (e.g., schools, restaurants, and hotels) making it difficult for agricultural producers to market their commodities. USDA reported that through this program, it has delivered more than 74 million food boxes to nonprofits, food banks, and other entities throughout the country since May 15, 2020 (as of August 27, 2020).
On July 24, 2020, USDA announced a third round of the program for purchases that would spend the remaining approximately $450 million of the $3 billion allocated for the program. While USDA said it has built various oversight and monitoring features into the program, USDA has not evaluated programmatic aspects for the first two rounds of the program. According to USDA officials, changes to the program for the third round were a result of feedback from industry associations, recipient organizations, Congress, and others.
USDA said it did not plan for evaluations because it developed the Farmers to Families Food Box Program as a short-term solution to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, there are opportunities for USDA to identify successes and challenges from implementation of the program and to obtain lessons learned that could be used to inform future similar efforts. This would be consistent with Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance on the use of evaluations and other forms of evidence and federal standards for internal control to strengthen the design and operation of programs. Going forward, an evaluation, for example, could focus on better understanding program participation, stakeholder perspectives, and lessons learned for future programs.
By conducting an evaluation of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program after the third round of the program, USDA would have better assurance it has identified successes and challenges from its implementation of the program that could be used to inform future similar efforts or if the program is extended.
Why GAO Did This Study
GAO reviewed the Farmers to Families Food Box Program in response to a provision in the CARES Act for GAO to conduct monitoring and oversight of the use of funds made available to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, GAO's objective was to review the key actions USDA has taken, to date, to respond to and recover from COVID-19. GAO conducted this work as part of its mandated 60-day report to Congress. GAO reviewed the most recent USDA delivery data on USDA's website as of August 27, 2020; federal laws, agency policy and other guidance, and expenditure data that USDA provided GAO as of August 14, 2020; and written responses to GAO's questions by USDA officials in the Agricultural Marketing Service. GAO assessed the program's implementation against OMB guidance and relevant sections of Federal Standards for Internal Control. GAO continues its work assessing various aspects of the program including program implementation and contracting.
The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture should direct the Agricultural Marketing Service to conduct an evaluation of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program after the third round of the program.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Agriculture||The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture should direct the Agricultural Marketing Service to conduct an evaluation of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program after the third round of the program. (Recommendation 1)||
USDA did not implement our recommendation. The Farmers to Families Food Box Program was a temporary, emergency relief effort to respond to market disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. USDA ended the Farmers to Families Food Box Program as of May 31, 2021. According to USDA, the speed in which the department was required to implement the program precluded the Agricultural Marketing Service, the implementing agency, from being able to devote staff time to an evaluation after the third round of program funding. However, in response to a requirement in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, USDA conducted what it termed "a preliminary review" of the program after the fourth round of program funding (in January 2021) and before issuing solicitations for the fifth round of program funding.