Biden to cancel Trump’s pandemic food aid after high costs, delivery problems

By Christopher Walljasper

CHICAGO (Reuters) -Yogurt was everywhere as volunteers opened boxes of fruit, frozen meat and dairy products that had shifted and spilled in transit to a food bank in Walworth County, Wisconsin.

They rushed to clean and transfer the packages of frozen meatballs, apples, milk and yogurt into cars for needy families to take home before they spoiled.

The food came from The Farmers to Families Food Box program that the Trump administration launched to feed out-of-work Americans with food rescued from farmers who would otherwise throw it away as the coronavirus pandemic upended food supply chains.

The government hired hundreds of private companies last spring to buy food no longer needed by restaurants, schools and cruise ships and haul it to overwhelmed food banks. But the program faced spilled and spoiled food, high costs and uneven distribution nationwide, according to interviews with food banks and distributors, and an analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) invoice data obtained through Freedom of Information requests.

Some of the companies charged the government more than double the program average while delivery to food banks was sometimes late. When the government contracted new vendors, some food banks relying on the program stopped receiving food at all. At the same time, the contractors delivered to churches or daycare centers that lacked adequate refrigeration.

“Food was abandoned to spoil,” said Susan Hughes, managing director of the Walworth County Food and Diaper Pantry.

The USDA spent $4 billion on the food box program in 2020 – six times its normal emergency food budget. After reviewing the program, President Joe Biden’s administration has decided not to continue it after May, USDA Communications Director Matt Herrick told Reuters.

Under newly appointed Secretary Tom Vilsack, the USDA is focused on different hunger initiatives, including expanding food stamp benefits and increasing food purchases through existing government food distribution programs, Herrick said.

“We’re not going to replace the program,” he said.

While food bank operators are thankful for the large volumes of fresh food from the food box program – and they stress that aid is still needed – many say far more families could have been fed by sticking to existing programs with proven quality and oversight.

Greg Ibach, USDA’s former undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs under the Trump administration, helped design the food box program in about a month. He said it worked as well as other USDA programs that took years to develop.

“We were in a hurry. People were hungry; there wasn’t food in grocery stores – if there was, they couldn’t afford it,” Ibach said. “We got a lot of food out the door and in peoples’ hands.”

HIGH COSTS, INCONSISTENT BOXES

When the food box program was rolled out in May 2020, the Trump administration touted it as a way of getting food to hungry Americans quickly. But by late June, the program fell short of delivery targets, Reuters reported. The government provided little guidance to food pantries and sometimes inexperienced distributors, who were often left to connect with one another on their own.

After some states, including Montana and Nevada, received very little food early on, the Trump administration in June contracted with Gold Star Foods, a California-based school food distributor, to reach underserved areas, Gold Star’s CEO Sean Leer said in an interview.

Gold Star billed the government between $87 and $102 in October and November for food boxes containing fruit, meat and dairy products. That’s more than double the average of similar boxes from other companies at the time, according to USDA invoice data. Leer said the cost reflected the increase in food and freight prices during the pandemic supply chain disruption.

Leer said the company has at times delivered the food boxes at a loss. He noted that during the February cold snap in Texas, Gold Star sent food to the state from California because the weather caused supply problems in Texas.

Food delivered by Gold Star accounted for less than 2% of federal money spent on the food box program in 2020, though that will increase to just under 9% through April 2021, according to Reuters’ review of USDA invoice data.

Companies delivered food in varying quantities at first, making cost comparisons between different vendors difficult. But in September USDA standardized the food boxes at no more than 24 pounds after feedback from food banks.

From October through December, invoice data shows seven out of 105 companies, including Gold Star Foods, charged the government double the program’s median price per pound of food. Three of those companies were awarded contracts by the Trump administration for nearly $32 million in January 2021.

The Biden administration says some companies may have overcharged the USDA.

“There was an unequal cost associated with the distribution and filling of these boxes. Some people made a significant percentage from filling the boxes,” Vilsack said on a March 3 call with reporters.

The USDA specified food boxes delivered in 2021 to the continental U.S. cost between $27 and $48 per box. But cheaper boxes presented new challenges and put additional burdens on food banks, said Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. The lower-cost boxes contained lower quality food, and food companies at times refused to deliver them to smaller pantries, leaving local organizations scrambling to find extra money for delivery, she said.

RURAL AREAS LEFT OUT

Though some regional food banks have taken on the labor of delivering to multiple counties, most smaller food banks serve only one county. Deliveries to additional counties are at the expense of food banks, said Brian Greene, CEO of the Houston Food Bank.

Reuters’ analysis of USDA data showed the program struggled in particular to reach rural counties. While cities and well-populated counties received millions of boxes of food, 896 counties – or nearly a third – received none, according to USDA data.

USDA’s Herrick said the Biden administration’s assessment of the program exposed problems in how the food aid was delivered.

“A lot of rural communities went unserved entirely,” he said.

Counties that did receive food worked with as many as a dozen food companies over seven months in 2020. Every six to twelve weeks, the USDA introduced a new phase of the program, changing food suppliers and forcing food banks to scramble to connect with new vendors or lose food supplies.

“USDA didn’t give (distributors) any guidance as to who to serve or keep serving,” said Harvard’s Broad Leib. “You can’t rely on something if one day it’s there, then the next day it’s not.”

Despite the program’s flaws, food banks say the nearly 133 million boxes of food delivered in 2020 averted an even greater crisis.

There are hungry Americans in nearly every city and county nationwide, said Kate Leone, senior VP of government relations at Feeding America, a national network of food banks. The organization estimates that about half of the children in some counties are food-insecure – worried about where their next meal might come from.

(Reporting by Christopher Walljasper; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)

Honduras hurricanes push thousands into homelessness

By Jose Cabezas

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (Reuters) – Willian Castro and his family huddled on the roof of a banana packing plant for three days as Hurricane Eta raged last month, seeking to escape the torrential rains and floods that swept through his home and thousands of others.

His city of San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras was one of the areas worst hit by Eta and Hurricane Iota, which struck just two weeks later, deepening the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic in Central America.

Castro, 34, worked as a barber from his home, which was destroyed in the storms. He is now considering following thousands of Hondurans before him who saw emigration north as a way out of poverty.

“We will have to start over,” he said. “We can’t do it alone. If not, I’ll have to think about what many have done in the past, go to the United States.”

For now, Castro is living in a friend’s house near San Pedro Sula. Private organizations have given his family food, and neighbors who receive remittances from relatives in the United States have also helped.

“The government has not given us anything,” Castro said.

Julissa Mercado, a spokeswoman for government disaster agency COPECO, said the area around San Pedro Sula received food aid, but that it was inevitable that some people would say they had not received assistance.

Nationwide, some 4.5 million people – half the Honduran population – have been impacted by the hurricanes and their aftermath, including landslides and rain that submerged entire communities, the government said. More than 85,200 homes were damaged and 6,100 destroyed.

In Castro’s old neighborhood, the accumulated rainwater is a meter high in some areas, and downed power poles and trees, furniture and appliances still clutter the streets.

Some 95,000 people in San Pedro Sula have taken refuge in shelters. Thousands of others sleep each night in flimsy sheds made of wood and plastic sheets, on sidewalks or under bridges.

President Juan Orlando Hernandez has called for help from other nations. “It’s the worst disaster that we have experienced in the history of the Republic of Honduras,” he said on Thursday at an event recognizing first responders.

Even before the twin storms, which also killed 100 people, Honduras was expecting an economic contraction of 10.5% this year due to the pandemic.

“After losing their homes, assets and even their jobs, people who were already poor are now even worse off,” said Nelson Garcia, director of the Mennonite Social Action Commission (CASM), a human rights organization.

(Reporting by Jose Cabezas and Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Adriana Barrera, Editing by Daina Beth Solomon and John Stonestreet)

North Korea says “biggest issue” in U.S. ties is impounded ship

North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations Han Tae Song attends an interview with Reuters at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, May 22, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The U.S. seizure of a North Korean cargo ship is the biggest stumbling block to improving bilateral relations, a senior North Korean official said on Wednesday, warning Washington against using the “logic of strength” against Pyongyang.

The Trump administration must make a “big decision” on lifting sanctions before stalled nuclear negotiations can resume, Han Tae Song, North Korea’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, added in an interview.

“It would be the greatest miscalculation if America thought my country is among the countries where American-style logic of strength or pressure might work,” Han, who is also North Korea’s disarmament ambassador, told Reuters.

North Korea, under U.S. and U.N. sanctions for its nuclear and missile programs, has stepped up a campaign for the return of the ship, which Washington says it seized over accusations it was used for coal shipments in violation of the curbs.

The country has warned Washington that the impounding of the “Wise Honest” ship had violated its sovereignty and could affect “future developments” between the two countries.

“Yes, (it is) the biggest issue,” Han said of the vessel, which U.S. officials say is en route to American Samoa. “It is because it is the infringing upon the sovereignty of our country.”

Han described the seizure as a “wanton violation of international law” and demanded its immediate return.

Han said he had no information on its cargo, but on the consequences of a U.S. failure to return the ship, he said: “We don’t want, the Americans also don’t want and the international community don’t want the situation again worsening.”

At their second summit meeting in February, talks broke down between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, stalling moves toward denuclearization.

Han said his country’s short-range missile tests carried out earlier in May were a “routine checking of our national defense capabilities”, indicating that they would continue.

“WE ARE NOT OBSESSED” OVER MORE TALKS

The U.N. Security Council has unanimously strengthened sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, banning exports including coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood, and capping imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products.

Asked whether North Korea was ready to resume nuclear negotiations with the United States, Han referred to Kim’s speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly in April.

“If they don’t change their minds, if they don’t make a big decision, we are not obsessed over another round of talks with the USA, out of (being) thirsty for lifting sanctions,” Han said.

“That’s why our leader said that if they made a big decision, there will be another round of talks with America.”

Han said that North Korean grain production was lower last year following drought, leading to a “shortage of food”.

U.N. agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), are providing food assistance, from donor contributions, he said.

“If there is food aid, it’s ok. But if there is no food aid, then we have to manage ourselves.”

Asked whether the food shortages were manageable, he replied: “It is manageable, but the problem is U.N. sanctions.

“We can’t transact for importing the food through banking systems, that is the main problem.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean)

Yemen’s Houthis deny U.N. access to Hodeidah mills for ‘safety reasons’: sources

ADEN (Reuters) – Houthi forces denied the United Nations access to a grain storage site in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah on Tuesday, sources familiar with the matter said, hindering efforts to increase food aid to millions facing severe hunger.

Hodeidah is the entry point for most of Yemen’s humanitarian aid and commercial imports. World Food Programme (WFP) grain stores there have been cut off in the conflict zone for six months, putting the contents at risk of rotting.

A WFP technical team was scheduled to cross the front line between the Iran-aligned Houthi movement forces and the Saudi-backed government on the eastern outskirts of Hodeidah to fumigate the wheat stored in the Red Sea Mills.

But Houthi forces told the WFP team they could not leave Houthi-held areas inside Hodeidah city for “security reasons”, asking the United Nations instead for a way to investigate attacks on the mills.

“The Houthis argued that government forces will target the U.N. and then they will be blamed for it,” one source aware of the discussion said. “(But) if the wheat is not fumigated, it will be lost.”

The WFP regained access to the mills last month, a step hailed by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The grain stores there have more than 51,000 tonnes of wheat, enough to feed 3.7 million people.

WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said a WFP mission to the Red Sea Mills was scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed due to “safety concerns”. Verhooseldeclined to give details.

Houthi officials did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Yemeni government officials accused the Houthis of another violation of the peace agreement signed last year which the United Nations has been struggling to implement.

The Houthis and the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi agreed at U.N.-sponsored talks in December to a truce and troop withdrawal from Hodeidah.

But talks aimed at securing a mutual military withdrawal from Hodeidah have stalled despite U.N. efforts to salvage the deal and nudge both sides to agree on steps toward disengagement after four years of war.

Under the deal, the government retreat would free up access to the Red Sea Mills and humanitarian corridors would also be reopened. The warring sides would still need to agree on which road could be used to transport supplies from the site to needy recipients.

The WFP is now reaching about 10 million Yemenis per month with food aid and hopes to scale up to 12 million this year, but sporadic clashes make Hodeidah and its province unsafe despite the ceasefire agreement.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are leading a military coalition that is backing Hadi government forces fighting the Houthis. The war that killed tens of thousands and thrust Yemen to the verge of famine.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Mohamed Ghobari and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Downgrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be ‘grave mistake’: Pompeo

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pauses during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, U.S., November 20, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Doina Chiacu and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that downgrading U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi would be a mistake for national security and would not push Saudis in a better direction at home.

After repeated calls from members of Congress for a strong U.S. response, Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were briefing the U.S. Senate behind closed doors about Saudi Arabia and the Oct. 2 murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, as well as the civil war in Yemen.

In a blog post, Pompeo said: “The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on. But degrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S. and its allies,” Pompeo wrote.

In his remarks for the briefing, which were released as it got underway, Mattis said that pulling back U.S. military support in Yemen and stopping weapons sales to important partners would be misguided.

“Our security interests cannot be dismissed, even as we seek accountability for what President (Donald) Trump described as the “unacceptable and horrible crime” of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, a crime which “our country does not condone,” Mattis said in his prepared remarks.

Pompeo made the case that the Saudis are too important an ally to lose, citing the country’s help to contain Iran in the region, secure democracy in Iraq and fight the Islamic State and other militant groups.

“The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East,” he wrote. “Saudi Arabia, like the U.S. – and unlike these critics – recognizes the immense threat the Islamic Republic of Iran poses to the world.”

Pompeo also said the United States would provide an additional $131 million for food aid in Yemen.

The nearly four-year-long war in Yemen, which has killed more than 10,000 people and triggered the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, is seen as a proxy war between Saudia Arabia and Iran.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Berkrot)

Fifteen dead in food aid stampede in Morocco: ministry

People gather at the place where 15 people were killed when a stampede broke out in the southwestern Moroccan town of Sidi Boulaalam as food aid was being distributed in a market, in Sidi Boullaalam, Morocco November 20, 2017.

By Zakia Abdennebi

RABAT (Reuters) – Fifteen people were killed and five more injured when a stampede broke out in a southwestern Moroccan town on Sunday as food aid was being distributed in a market, the Interior Ministry said.

A hospital source put the death toll at 18, adding that most victims were women who had been scrambling for food handed out by a rich man in the small coastal town of Sidi Boulaalam.

A local journalist said the donor had organised similar handouts before, but this year some 1,000 people arrived, storming an iron barrier under which several women were crushed.

King Mohammed ordered that the victims’ families be given any assistance they needed and the wounded treated at his cost, the ministry said in a statement, adding that a criminal investigation had been opened.

Last month, the king dismissed the ministers of education, planning and housing and health after an economic agency found “imbalances” in implementing a development plan to fight poverty in the northern Rif region.

The Rif saw numerous protests after a fishmonger was accidentally crushed to death in a garbage truck in October 2016 after a confrontation with police, and he became a symbol of the effects of corruption and official abuse.

In July, the king pardoned dozens of people arrested in the protests and accused local officials of stoking public anger by being too slow to implement development projects.

 

(Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Cynthia Osterman)

 

Nigeria says half of government food aid never reached victims of Boko Haram

LAGOS (Reuters) – At least half of Nigerian government food aid sent northeast for hungry people driven from their homes by Boko Haram has been “diverted” and never reached them, a government official said.

Some 1.5 million people are on the brink of famine in the northeast, where the jihadist group has killed more than 20,000 people and forced 2.7 million to flee during its eight-year uprising to create an Islamic caliphate.

A program was launched on June 8 by Yemi Osinbajo, acting president while President Muhammadu Buhari is in Britain on medical leave, to distribute grain to 1.8 million people still displaced by the insurgency, many of whom live in camps.

“Over 1,000 trucks of assorted grains are now on course, delivering the grains intact to beneficiaries since the commencement of the present program as against the reported diversion of over 50 trucks in every 100 trucks sent to the northeast,” said Osinbajo’s spokesman Laolu Akande in an emailed statement late on Saturday.

“The issue of diversion of relief materials, including food and related matters, which has dogged food delivery to the IDPs [internally displaced people] would be significantly curbed under the new distribution matrix.”

Akande said 1,376 military personnel and 656 armed police would guard the food as it was moved from warehouses and distributed to displaced people in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe – the three states worst hit by the insurgency.

Boko Haram controlled an area of the northeast around the size of Belgium in early 2015 but has since been pushed out of most of the territory by Nigeria’s army and troops from neighboring countries.

But the Islamists continue to carry out attacks in the northeast and neighboring Cameroon and Niger.

Boko Haram killed 14 people in bombings and shootings in the northeastern city of Maiduguri on June 7, in a large-scale attack quelled by the army after several hours.

A U.N. official said this month the World Food Programme had scaled back its emergency plans in the northeast because of lack of funds, now aiming to supply food to 1.4 million people instead of the 1.8 million previously intended.

The U.N. says it needs $1.05 billion this year to deal with the crisis in northeast Nigeria – which, along with Somalia and South Sudan, is one of three humanitarian emergencies unfolding in Africa – but has only received about a quarter of that sum.

(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram; editing by Andrew Roche)

Thousands return to ruins of freezing Aleppo

Samah, 11, and her brother, Ibrahim, transport their salvaged belongings from their damaged house in Doudyan village in northern Aleppo

By Lisa Barrington

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Thousands of people are starting to return to formerly rebel-held east Aleppo despite freezing weather and destruction  “beyond imagination”, a top U.N. official told Reuters from the Syrian city.

In the last couple of days around 2,200 families have returned to the Hanano housing district, said Sajjad Malik, country representative in Syria for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“People are coming out to east Aleppo to see their shops, their houses, to see if the building is standing and the house is not that looted … to see, should they come back,” he said  in an interview.

But given the appalling conditions, the U.N. is not encouraging people to return.

“It is extremely, bitterly cold here,” said Malik. “The houses people are going back to have no windows or doors, no cooking facilities.”

Aid is vital to prevent more deaths. The U.N. is helping people to restart their lives in one room of their apartments to start with, he said, giving them mats, sleeping bags and plastic sheets to cover blown-out windows.

BREAD AND WATER

Hanano was one of the first Aleppo neighborhoods to fall to rebels in 2012, and the first to be retaken by the Syrian government on its way to seizing back full control of the northern city last month – the biggest victory for President Bashar al-Assad in nearly six years of war.

As government forces rapidly advanced, some residents stayed put, tens of thousands fled of their own accord and around 35,000 fighters and civilians were evacuated in late December in convoys organized by the Syrian government.

After months of fierce Syrian and Russian air strikes, reconstruction will take a long time, Malik said, but the immediate priority is to keep people warm and fed. U.N.-supported partners provide hot meals twice a day to 21,000 people, and 40,000 people get baked bread every day.

Over 1.1 million people once again have access to clean water in bottles or through tankers and wells.

Mobile clinics are up and running, and more than 10,000 children have received polio vaccinations. Thousands of children who have not been able to attend school need reintegrating into the education system through remedial classes to rebuild their confidence, Malik said.

There was no register of births, deaths and marriages in the rebel-held sector, so the U.N. is working with the government to issue people with papers. “I met a woman with five children and she was excited that she now has her kids registered as Syrians. She has ID cards and a family book,” he said.

Bombing has destroyed hospitals, schools, roads and houses, and damaged the two main water pumping stations. The experienced U.N. official said the level of destruction surpassed anything he had seen in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Somalia.

“Nothing would have prepared us to see the scale of destruction there, it’s beyond imagination.”

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)