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Hunger-Fighting Groups Raise Concerns about Trump Letter

The USDA says requiring a letter from the president be included with food given to needy families during an election campaign does not violate the Federal Hatch Act. (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)
The USDA says requiring a letter from the president be included with food given to needy families during an election campaign does not violate the Federal Hatch Act. (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)
October 5, 2020

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Anti-hunger advocates are expressing alarm at a new US Department of Agriculture requirement that millions of boxes of surplus food include a letter from President Donald Trump.

The letters - claiming credit for the program funded by the CARES Act - started appearing in some Farmers to Families Food Box program deliveries over the summer. But as of September, the agency has required private contractors, including not-for-profit groups, to include the letter when packing and distributing the food.

According to Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, this may put organizations that are legally prohibited from promoting political candidates in an untenable position.

"It's essentially blackmailing nonprofit groups that are doing this food distribution to say either you help advance the president's reelection or you have to say, 'Oh, we're not feeding hungry people,'" Berg said.

Congressional Democrats say the letter may violate the federal Hatch Act, prohibiting political activities by executive branch employees. But the USDA says it does not.

Berg contends the letter, which credits the president with prioritizing sending food to families during the pandemic and includes some suggestions on staying safe from the coronavirus, fails to pass a simple test.

"On a purely legal matter, the question is, does something have a governmental purpose? There's no governmental purpose, there's no commonsense purpose," he said. "The only logical purpose would be to aid a reelection campaign - and that would be illegal."

He added when he worked at the USDA during the Clinton administration, they removed even the USDA labels from food being sent to food banks.

While the contractors packing the food are now required to include the letters in every Farmers to Families Food Box package, Berg noted they may not be required when the food is finally delivered.

"We're being told food banks are getting guidance that they can take the letters out of the boxes, and I hope many of them do," he said. "We don't take sides in campaigns one way or another. We just don't think our tax dollars should be doing that, either."

Some food banks have reportedly consulted lawyers to make sure the letters don't jeopardize their nonprofit status or violate election laws.

Disclosure: Hunger Free America contributes to our fund for reporting on Hunger/Food/Nutrition. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA