Federal food program extended through April

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Flavio Moreno drives the forklift and transports pizzas into a truck bound for the Northern Illinois Food Bank at Home Run Inn on May 26, 2020 in Woodridge, Ill.

STACEY WESCOTT/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS

BY ALEXIA ELEJALDE-RUIZ
CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS

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.

Fresh meat, produce

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.

Seafood, more cheeses

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.

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