Federally funded food box program critical for charities during the pandemic extended through April, and now with more food choices

Flavio Moreno drives the forklift and transports pizzas into a truck bound for the Northern Illinois Food Bank in Woodridge, Ill.

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz

The Chicago Tribune

A federal program that has provided boxes of fresh food to charities facing long lines of hungry people during the coronavirus pandemic has been extended through April, offering a lifeline as the economy struggles to recover and unemployment remains high.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday that it will purchase $1.5 billion of food for the Families to Farmers Food Box Program. The funding was included in the COVID-19 relief package signed into law last month, just as the program was set to end and food banks were raising concerns about food supply amid a growing need.

The agency last year spent $4 billion on four rounds of the program, which launched in May and was included in the original COVID-19 relief legislation. It said some 3.3 billion meals have been distributed.

Under the program, USDA works with food distributors across the country to buy fresh meat, dairy and produce from farmers and assemble them into boxes that are delivered to food pantries and other charities.

Deliveries for the latest round will begin shortly after contracts are awarded this month and continue through the end of April.

In addition to providing a consistent source of fresh food to people seeking aid from food pantries, the program helps farmers and distributors whose business has been hurt by the reduced demand from restaurants, hotels and other institutions forced to close or curtail operations to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The new round has some changes. Food boxes can include precooked seafood products and a greater variety of cheeses — blue, Gouda, Gruyere, Parmesan, provolone and others — in addition to cheddar.

The extension of the food box program was among several efforts to address hunger in the latest COVID-19 relief legislation. Families who receive aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, will see a 15% increase in benefits through June.

Anti-hunger advocates had been pressing Congress to raise the SNAP benefits level and extend the food box program.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank, which supplies food to pantries in the Chicago suburbs outside of the Cook County, provided 50% more meals last year than the previous year, and a third were from the food box program.

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