Emergency food box program set to end soon

Every week, three times a week for the last year, people in the Bronx have lined up under the train tracks on Boston Road and Astor Avenue for much-needed food.

"We don't have a lot of income to provide the food," said Carmen Cruz, whose family has been hit hard by the pandemic. "A lot of people in my family lost their jobs."

The program that distributes the boxes that thousands of people in New York City have come to rely on is called Farmers to Families and is orchestrated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Started as an emergency program last spring, Farmers to Families has since provided 125,000 boxes of food to people in the Bronx and more than 170 million boxes to people nationwide. Each box contains 30 pounds of food, including fresh produce, milk, dairy and cooked meats.

But in just a few days, Farmers to Families will "sunset," the USDA said.

It's too soon, say residents like Yvette Ortiz, who relies on the boxes to help her elderly mother and their neighbors get by.

"I feel the city is not 100% right now," Ortiz said. "Just because we got vaccine doesn't mean it's over. There's a lot of people who need help."

A spokesperson for the USDA said the program was meant to be a temporary, emergency program in response to the "severe market disruption" caused by the pandemic. 

"The environment today is much different than when this program was created at the beginning of the pandemic. The condition of our economy has continued to improve since the start of the year," the USDA spokesperson said. "Thanks to investments by Congress, food insecure Americans now have greater access to a more robust, expanded federal nutrition safety net including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), school and summer meals for children, the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), and commodity purchases for food banks—which are working in concert to reach those in need."

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City Councilman Mark Gjonaj, who represents parts of the Bronx, said cutting the program now is cutting a vital lifeline for many in his district.

"Whatever other supplements are out there, none come close to this," said Gjonaj, whose office has facilitated weekly distribution of the USDA food boxes. "We have the highest unemployment rate in New York State. We see light at the end of the tunnel but we're not there yet."

Gjonaj's office is collecting signatures on a petition asking the federal government to extend this program but as of now it is set to end at the end of the month.