by Maureen McNair
During 2020, when Donald Trump was US President, Congress responded in a variety of ways to what we did not then know would only be the first year of the covid-19 pandemic. One way Congress responded was to enact legislation to empower the US Department of Agriculture to pay farmers to send food into communities experiencing food insecurity. The idea was for pantries like ours to find volunteers, find people in need, and distribute those USDA boxes.
Back in my former life when I was an Attorney at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, the Secretary of Agriculture was one of my clients. I can tell you from personal experience USDA is such an old and enormous bureaucracy the right hand does not necessarily know what the left hand is doing. So, it came as no surprise to me that the roll out of those food boxes was, let's say, complicated, disorganized, and marked by persistent uncertainty. Neither of the major regional food banks in San Diego County consistently had the USDA food boxes. Let that sink in for a moment. And, since both food banks had frozen new member applications, even if they had the USDA boxes, we would not have been able to obtain those boxes through either food bank that early in our pantry’s existence.
I eventually ended up securing many hundreds of the food boxes — probably thousands of boxes, I just cannot remember at this point -- through community contacts in the food insecurity community over many delivery cycles until the program dried up here. But, USDA handled one aspect of that program with consistent meticulousness. It did not matter whether we received 20 pound boxes of produce or 32 pound boxes which included meat, eggs, dairy, and fresh produce. Every single one of those boxes contained a letter signed by President Trump.
When the USDA boxes were delivered, it was my practice to open one to find out what food was inside. That is how I discovered Mr. Trump’s letter. Mostly, it was self-promotion ending with with a large, pointy signature inscribed in black felt pen, except for one sentence. That sentence encouraged people to wear masks if they wanted to. The President did not have the authority to over-ride our non-discretionary mask mandate. I wondered, should the food pantry distribute the President’s letter?
In my volunteer work at the pantry, I do not like to make decisions about things that might affect the church by myself. We were a nascent organization, and like even well-established concerns, completely unprepared with a set of plans on how to respond to pandemic surprises. As usual, there was no staff on site. I did not have a single resource on how to handle this situation. So, I decided to pull letters from several boxes, handed a letter to each church member volunteering on site that day, and asked them to stand in a socially distanced outdoor circle to figure out what to do about the letter. We read the letter, discussed it, and eventually reached consensus that we would remove the letter from every box. We then looped in the volunteers who were not church members, let them go through the process, and they reached the same conclusion we reached.
Removing the letter required a lot of physical labor. Not only had volunteers already unloaded every box by hand from the delivery truck (remember, we do not own a pallet jack because our doorways are too narrow to accommodate one), volunteers now had to un-stack and open every box, remove the letter, then re-stack the boxes. Then, of course, they had to lift each box again to give it to a client. Our volunteers did this extra labor throughout the summer.
It was some comfort that first week I found Mr. Trump’s letter to read in both The Washington Post and the San Diego Union that other recipients of USDA food boxes removed the letter too. It felt quite lonely at the time. But, I think we made the right decision.
Fast forward to 2022. Who knew there would be such things as covid-19 variants and home self-test kits?
President Joe Biden gets to implement the Congressional response to the omicron variant. What a difference. Feeding San Diego, the regional branch of Feeding America, stocks at-home covid home self-tests. Our pantry is now a full partner with Feeding San Diego. They deliver boxes of the test kits to us at pre-planned delivery times. There is nothing else inside the boxes, no surprise letters from the President. The self-test kits come with instructions in English and Spanish. No snooping around the back woods of suppliers to find product. No excess labor. I tell you, considering we are heading into year three of the pandemic, life is good!
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