House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., stands during a July 31 House Select Subcommittee hearing on the coronavirus.

House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., stands during a July 31 House Select Subcommittee hearing on the coronavirus. Erin Scott/Pool via AP

High-Ranking Democrat Launches Investigation Into USDA Pandemic Food Assistance Program 

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., will review contracting practices and overall management. 

A top House Democrat launched an investigation into the Agriculture Department's multi-billion dollar pandemic food assistance program on Monday due to reports of mismanagement. 

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, wrote to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue with concerns about the program authorized by “The Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” enacted in March. It allowed USDA to use appropriated funds to buy food directly from producers and then distribute it to food banks and nonprofits serving the millions of Americans in need during the pandemic, and expanded on a pre-existing initiative. From March to July, the agency initiated three rounds of contracts, totalling up to $3 billion, for food delivery from May to October. 

 “I am concerned that the Trump administration’s management of this critical effort has been marred by questionable contracting practices, a lack of accountability and a failure to deliver food to many communities that need it most,” Clyburn wrote.  

He explained that his specific concerns were: some of the contractors USDA chose to distribute food did not have the proper experience and/or license needed, the agency didn’t disclose the recipients of over $10 million in contracts during the first round, the program faced delivery problems and the administration “appears to be seeking political benefits” by including a signed letter from the president in the food boxes.

“Some of the contractors are established companies, and many food banks told ProPublica they’re successfully and gratefully receiving shipments,” said a ProPublica investigation from May that the congressman cited. “But other contractors have eclectic backgrounds with little track record in food distribution, such as a wedding planner, a caterer and a ‘brand builder.’ As a result, some food banks are left scrambling for shipments or even callbacks.” 

Clyburn also referenced concerns raised during a July 21 hearing on the program. 

Matt Habash, CEO of the food bank Mid-Ohio Food Collective, testified that while he was thankful for the partnership with USDA, there were some logistical issues with the program such as not taking into account food allergies and imposing costs on food banks to store and transport food. Additionally, Eric Cooper, CEO and president of the San Antonio Food Bank, said there was “some unevenness in the bidding and contracting process,” which led to a problematic distribution process that “challenged the equity and accountability” of the program. 

Clyburn asked USDA to provide by Sept. 7 information and documents regarding the bidding process for contracts, organizations slated to receive food, contractors’ performance, any contracts terminated, and prices USDA paid for food and related audits. He also is seeking a staff briefing by Sept. 14. 

USDA did not respond for comment on the investigation. However, USDA Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach said during the July hearing that officials “welcome” feedback “because we want to continue to improve the program.”